There’s a silent and scratchy piece of black and white historical footage that most British children saw from time to time whenever the subject of Suffragettes was in discussion in the classroom. It’s where a woman called Emily Wilding Davison, a militant activist who fought for women’s rights at the turn of the century, stepped in front of King George V’s racing horse at the famous Epsom Derby in 1913.
It was a pivotal moment in the suffragette movement, one that turned the tide and was seen as headlines not only in the U.K. but around the world. In the new period drama from director Sarah Gavron called Suffragette the scene is dramatized and it still shocks, even if those aware of the circumstances have full knowledge of the outcome. In the film, Davison is played by Natalie Press, but if new to the story, it’s not Davison’s character you’ll remember, it’s a fictional one, a composite of several women of the time called Maud Watts, and Maud is played with intelligence, spirit and an uncompromising determination by Carey Mulligan, complete with cockney accent.
The film uses the fictional East Londoner Maud as an example. She’s the type of woman that given her working-class London home life, not to mention the difficult working conditions and the low-pay of her laundry factory employment, Maud would have joined the movement, even if membership came reluctantly; at least, at first. At the film’s factory, men earn nineteen shillings a week. Women, doing the same job, earn only thirteen, plus, unlike the men, at the end of the day, they suffer the indignity of jokes and a leering foreman breathing down the back of their necks. As played by Geoff Bell, he’s the kind of bullying boss who considers his position of unearned male superiority as some kind of pass to act as he does. It would seem a cliché if it wasn’t sadly typical.
When Maud witnesses a street protest where a women’s group of activists start to throw bricks at shop windows, she complains that maybe the ladies have gone too far. It’s one thing to belligerently cause disruption with placards and pamphlets but it’s another to break the law by breaking property. “You want me to respect the law?” asks a woman by Maud’s side, “Then make the law respectable.”
By creating a central character like Maud, the film allows us to witness what we have to presume was a typical path a woman such as this Bethnal Green cockney would have had to take in order to stand up for what was right. It came at unbelievably insurmountable costs. At one point, by joining the suffragette movement and finally engaging in protests of her own, Maud is arrested, imprisoned, ridiculed and continually threatened.
“Dad says you’re not well in the head,” says Maud’s young son to his mother. Dad is Sonny Watts (Ben Whishaw) and like many men of the time he is mortified that his wife not only disobeys his orders but she’s now become such a leading player in the fight-for-vote movement. In a society where everyone knows each other and unrealistic judgments are both continually made and voiced, Sonny is less concerned with his wife’s position and more with what his friends and co-workers think. “You won’t ever shame me like that again,” he states.
What Sonny perceives as humiliation is too much to take. Rather than support his wife, he takes the opposite route. Unable to properly care for their son when his wife is imprisoned again, in a heartbreaking moment he allows a wealthier couple to adopt their child and take the boy away. “The law says it’s up to me,” Sonny angrily declares to his wife. “That’s the law.” But it’s a law written by men and voted upon by men. In a society where everything is stacked and shaped to male advantage, the attitude of Maud’s husband and the actions he takes as his wife looks helplessly on is the very thing Maud is fighting against.
What makes Suffragette such a pleasure are the details in the telling. The sense of early twentieth century London is well established by the look of the grimy, muted street colors of Edu Grau’s atmospheric widescreen cinematography. Costumes indicating the different classes are well established, plus accents of the area indicating position, class and authority sound authentic. We even catch a glimpse of the early morning pea-shooter whose job consisted of rising out of bed, walking the streets of London and firing peas from a mouth shooter at the windows of the factory workers in order to wake everyone in time for the early shift. He was the turn of the century equivalent of an alarm clock.
When thinking of the suffragette movement, it’s usually the name of Emily Pankhurst that springs to mind, here played with an appropriate degree of detachment by Meryl Streep. She pioneered women’s suffrage and it’s her work that in 1999 caused her to be named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century. She even has a line in the Mary Poppins song Sister Suffragette where Glynis Johns proudly declares, “Take heart, for Mrs. Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again!” But Suffragette is not Emmeline Pankhurt’s story. We meet her, but for just fleeting moments as she acts as a source of inspiration to the militant women. “Never surrender,” she tells Maud. “Never give up the fight.”
There’s also solid support from Helena Bonham Carter as Edith Ellyn, a real-life activist who tells Maud, “I consider myself more of a soldier.” Brendan Gleeson delivers an effectively threatening presence as Police Inspector Steed who belittles Maud by informing her, “You are nothing in this world,” though even he will later show a modicum of empathy when he passes judgment on a prison system that violently force feeds women against their will. “Our treatment grows increasingly barbaric,” he states, though his protest falls on deaf ears.
There’s a lesson of importance to be had with Suffragette, one that may even educate if your knowledge of those militant events have remained largely unknown. It was in 1918 when the right to vote was given to British women over the age of thirty, and not until 1928 when full rights were awarded. The right for financial equality continues. There’s still a way to go, though hopefully it won’t require a step as desperate as the one taken by Emily Wilding Davison that day in 1913 at the Epsom Derby horserace track.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 106 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)