A grey, grim world, free of color or joy; a world where one-half of the population virtually holds the other half in indentured servitude, one without workers’ rights, let alone workplace safety rules or regulations, a patriarchal society, except it’s not set in a distant future typically reserved for big-screen YA adaptations, but the not-so-distant past (a “past” that isn’t “past” in some countries), a century ago, England, where the right to vote extended only to men. How and why that changed, how women obtained the right to vote, could and has been the subject of numerous books and documentaries, but there’s an immediacy and urgency missing from both without the typically immersive nature of narrative filmmaking. That director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane), working from a screenplay written by Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady, Brick Lane), mostly succeeds is both a testament to the key history – fictionalized, of course – at the center of Suffragette.
Without a third, key collaborator, Carey Mulligan, once again reminding moviegoers why the seemingly hyperbolic “best actress of her generation” accolades aren’t hyperbolic after all, Suffragette could have easily devolved into drab, dull historical recreation. With Mulligan, however, as the narrative and emotional anchor, Gavron and Morgan manage to illustrate history while foregrounding the women, complex, contradictory, and often flawed, that helped to bend history toward social, cultural, and political equality (a struggle that continues to this day). Mulligan’s fictionalized character, Maud Watts, a working-class laundress by trade, finds her voice and with her voice, agency, when she unexpectedly steps in to describe her day-to-day life as part of a government hearing ostensibly created to review and/or recommend whether women should be granted the same political rights as men.
Maud’s act of speaking, so taken for granted now, but seen as a transgressive act by a heavily stratified, patriarchal society, functions as her political and social awakening. Predictably, it also leads to ever-increasing strains in her marriage to Sonny (Ben Whishaw), a worker at the same laundry. As a low-status, working-class male, Sonny’s masculinity, his self-worth, and his self-identity, are shackled to controlling Maud. Simply hearing a rights feminist, Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), leads to the first of several arrests, it’s clear that Maud and Sonny’s fragile marriage won’t survive the strain. Maud’s activism and increasing militancy also make her a neighborhood pariah and eventually, leads to Sonny’s drastic decision to eliminate contact between Maud and their young son, George (Adam Michael Dodd). Unsurprisingly, social pressures don’t so much force Maud to choose between her family and political activism as it chooses for her, with Sonny and an inspector, Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson), as reluctant, semi-sympathetic agents for a patriarchal society.
Maud’s awakening is initially due to contact with another, politically engaged laundry worker, Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), but her increasing commitment to the women’s rights cause brings her into contact with Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), a pharmacist, organizer, and activist, and Alice Haughton (Romola Garai), a wealthy women’s rights supporter, among others, and the eventual question every mass movement for social, cultural, and political change faces: The inherent limits of civil disobedience and the use of violence to increase visibility and overcome resistance from the status-quo embracing political establishment. Gavron and Morgan take pains to suggest militancy, specifically the destruction of public and private property, was necessary to the eventual success of the cause, but they also sidestep the decision by the movement’s leaders to halt demonstrations and protests during the First World War (patriotism and nationalism temporarily trumped political equality).
As a character, Maud segues or transitions from unaware, passive bystander to active, self-aware participant, though at a crucial moment, a pulls back, leaving Maud an observer, albeit a personally involved observer who’s witnessed an act of protest and defiance that Gavron and Morgan consider key to the movement’s success. It’s an odd, emotionally and dramatically unsatisfying decision, but on another level, it’s also an attempt to set aside the fictional for the historical, the imagined for the real, to re-embrace the actual women who fought for political equality (archival footage over the end credits functions in a similar manner). It still leaves Maud and by extension, Mulligan at a crucial moment with little to do except slip into a crowd of fellow suffragettes at a funeral and relative anonymity.