In 1912, laundress Maud Watts (Mulligan) is fearful of the militant suffragettes urging her to join them. But a lifetime’s abuse and humiliation eventually drive her to act, in hope of a better future.
Suffragette blows the dust off history in an involving, women-driven drama with a political thriller element and thought-provoking contemporary relevance for men and women equally. Somehow ‘suffragettes’ — originally a twee term for suffragists, coined in derision by a Daily Mail journalist and gleefully embraced by the women’s movement — have acquired a quaint image as shrill ladies in bloomers who chained themselves to railings. People have forgotten British women were beaten, tortured and died to win the right to vote that too many now neglect to exercise.
Screenwriter Abi Morgan cleverly sidesteps the leaders of the movement — largely privileged, educated women frustrated by social and economic inequities — and focuses on the foot soldier, a working woman, wife and mother. Carey Mulligan’s touching Maud has spent her life toiling in a grim laundry. Marriage to Sonny (Ben Whishaw) has given her tenuous security and a cherished child. Life is about working hard and knowing her place. But Maud’s curiosity is piqued by an activist co-worker (Anne-Marie Duff) and the rebellious wife (Romola Garai) of an antipathetic politician (Samuel West). Clandestine meetings with a local militant (Helena Bonham Carter) are monitored by the Man From The Met (Brendan Gleeson) and Maud is dangerously committed to an underground cell, an illegal course of action and a horrific ordeal.
Aptly, iconic Meryl Streep cameos as charismatic Emmeline Pankhurst, emerging from hiding to incite her admiring troops to rebellion. But even in this scene it is Mulligan’s radiant face that gets to the heart of the matter, despair ignited into hope and aspiration.
Director Sarah Gavron is impressively capable with both the character drama and big, tense set-pieces like the violently disrupted demonstrations, the militants’ “terrorist” acts and the climactic Epsom Derby, where a fateful statement marks a landmark moment in the movement. But what strikes one most forcibly is how grievances, indignities and the desperate desire to be heard must eventually be addressed by a society.
A wonderfully involving, moving Carey Mulligan and the spirited ensemble around her flesh out a handsomely crafted, timely look at why and how far people are willing to go for a cause.