It has been a long time coming, but finally director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) and screenwriter Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) have produced a gripping and forthright film that tackles the militant women’s suffrage movement of pre-war Britain.
Set in 1912 in the heart of London and primarily concerned with working-class women, the film centres on the life of fictional character Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan). Maud spends her days working long hours under the sweltering conditions of a Bethnal Green laundry house, where she is confronted on a daily basis with sexism and misogyny. Maud’s growing sense of this inequality brings her into contact with the women’s suffrage movement. Their tactics of civil disobedience appeal to Maud, a woman forced to work just as much as her husband, but somehow still worth less. The film’s depiction of Maud’s inequality culminates in the scene in which her estranged husband puts her son up for adoption, and Maud can legally do nothing. This moment proves to her once and for all why the Suffragette movement is important.
The film offers an important insight into the lives of women who decided to campaign violently for their right to vote. Maud’s suffering is shown in a particularly horrific scene of forced feeding, an event which pricks the conscience of even the stalwart male detective following her movements. The movie’s climax is the much-debated death of Emily Davison at the King’s Derby in June 1913, which provided the Suffragette movement with a martyr and bought the plight of women’s suffrage to the forefront of British press and politics.
Mulligan gives a harrowing performance, alongside a cast of spectacular actors including Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter, Romola Garai and a small, but crucial, appearance by Meryl Streep as the movement’s leader, Emmeline Pankhurst. The female-heavy cast are strong but the male characters remain largely one dimensional and undeveloped, existing primarily as husbands and police officers, antagonists for the women to struggle against. Even Bonham Carter’s supportive husband ends up locking her up at home, concerned for what participation in the violence is doing to her health. This is perhaps due to a casting problem: the director admitted finding male actors to fill the roles was difficult, since the male parts were relatively small compared to those of Mulligan and Bonham-Carter. That said, Meryl Streep had nothing but enthusiasm for her part in the film, however small. Nevertheless this film has a larger goal in mind than just its artistic success.
Sisters Uncut, an activist organisation that protests the cuts to domestic violence services in the UK, raided the red carpet at the London premiere of the film in early October to demonstrate that women are still discriminated against daily in this country. Similarly there are still sixty-two million women worldwide who do not have access to an education and there are still more countries where women do not have suffrage than those in which they do. This film is a stark reminder that women had to fight bitterly and lose much for their basic human rights – rights which many today take for granted – to achieve the vote and that there is still a long way to go.