Suffragette refreshes our memory of what it took for women simply to get the vote and have rights as mothers. They were disregarded for so long, they felt they had to be destructive to get men’s attention. Now, almost a hundred years later, the attitudes of that time are quaint at best and shocking at worst. And yet we still must struggle, “we go on” (movie quote); there are still unfair discrepancies in compensation between males and females in many professions. Although admittedly these are not as woeful as the Watts’ situation where she gets paid less than her husband for working more hours doing more dangerous tasks in the laundry where they work.
Events in the film are sobering, painful, and even disgusting, such as the headline about a demonstration reading “Wanton Damage by Suffragettes.” (The dictionary defines ‘wanton’ as “lascivious or promiscuous. Used especially of women…Marked by unprovoked, gratuitous maliciousness; capricious and unjust.” This for throwing bricks through store windows as protest against the unfair treatment of women. This is an example of the curious negative sexual connotation when it’s women doing the protesting.
The drama focuses on Maud Watts (Mulligan), who is a humble, hard-working, respected young woman who has worked at the laundry from age seven, and has been steadily promoted although working conditions are still poor. It’s not in her nature to be rebellious, but she is curious when approached by a co-worker to join the movement, and she goes to meetings primarily as a friend. By happenstance, it falls to her to speak for women in her district to Prime Minister Lloyd George. She makes a good impression on him and others listening, and you see the first awakening of her spirit.
Maud makes reasoned judgments about the movement’s activities, and still proceeds rather reluctantly, especially since her husband (Winshaw) discourages her from it. He wants her to toe the line like he does, and cannot comprehend why she and her friends are so persistent—which is the general feeling of the time. Activist women are derided as much by women as they are men. But the real pushback comes from the police who are charged with manhandling the women, knocking them down and injuring them and eventually jailing them. Maud struggles with the movement’s edging toward more violent demonstrations urged by the leaders of the movement, Emmeline Pankhurst (Streep) and Edyth Ellen (Carter).
Interestingly, she is pushed as much in that direction by the over-reactions of her husband and the police, as she is by the movement’s leaders.
Carey Mulligan is a top-notch actress who brings all her talents and skills to this role. She has her character maintain a loving presence and refreshing curiosity throughout the brutalities Maud experiences, showing that she never loses sight of basic principles of freedom and justice. Even the most violent act Maud commits toward an abusive individual seems justified, because you know she would only do it with cause.
Supporting actors with Mulligan, like Carter, Duff, Whishaw, Gleeson, and Streep, make this a terrific ensemble, aided by Alexandre Desplat’s musical score and Eduard Grau’s cinematography. The director Sarah Gavron and writer Abi Morgan should be applauded for bringing the whole group together to recount a vital story important for women even today. In this film, I gratefully renewed by appreciation for these women’s struggles and sacrifice for us who came after. We would never be where we are today without their bravery.
Interesting observation as an afterthought: All the “Rotten” Tomatoes reviews are by critics with male-sounding names. It’s understandable that Suffragette wouldn’t have the same impact on men as on women.
Women of today should see this film about those who sacrificed for us.