Oh Carey Mulligan. How my heart yearns for you and your perfect period-piece face.
In Suffragette, a movie about the women’s rights movement in Britain in the early 20th century, Mulligan is joined by Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep as part of a hugely accomplished female cast who act out their roles with some seriously personal vested interest.
The film opens with Mulligan, who plays Maud, working in a shirt and laundry factory, a setting that immediately invokes memories of the early scenes of Les Mis and has you wondering if Anne Hathaway might make a guest appearance. In fact, the whole tone of the movie is very Mis-esque: bleak, but empowering; infuriating, but undeniably true. However, to compare the two very separate events in European history is relatively moot, so I will draw no further parallels except to say the setting may seem eerily similar, and the fight, similarly astonishing.
In the first few scenes of Suffragette Maud witnesses an act of civil disobedience as women throw rocks through a glass storefront, shouting their demands for the right to vote for women. Maud is shaken by this demonstration, but intrigued by the women leading it. Upon arriving at the laundry factory, Maud speaks to Violet, one of the women she saw earlier, who encourages her to come listen to her testimony in front of Parliament, to support her in her plea for the vote. Maud, curious, agrees, only to find herself subbing in to deliver a testimony when Violet finds herself suddenly incapable.
Mulligan delivers a powerful performance as Maud details the story of how she ended up at the laundry factory — born to a husband-less mother, raised in the factory, promoted through the ranks but never awarded any special pay or compensation, and implying that though her existence has been miserable, she had never before had a reason to question it. After all, isn’t it women’s lot in life to settle? To be told when to feel happy, and to never question the value of their own existence? For a moment, the members of Parliament seem moved by her speech, but unsurprisingly, eventually rule to do nothing about the vote, citing that they have not found enough evidence to support it. This rejection, paired with her sudden bond with the powerful women of the movement and her own fervent testimony, energizes Maud, pushing her to join the fight for the cause.
As the movie progresses, Maud because more and more invested in the women’s rights movement, especially after hearing a rally speech by the elusive and infamous Emmeline Pankhurst, played by Meryl Streep (whose role, though limited, is essential to the message of the film). In her speech, Pankhurst encourages civil disobedience, encouraging the women to rebel and act out, as their attempts at peaceful negotiations have failed time and time again. As was truly the case, many women were uncertain of this approach, fearing that too much disobedience would set them back instead of bringing them forward — and worse, that it might be improper behavior for a woman. Good gracious!
Also true to history, many of the women involved in the movement were jailed on multiple occasions for disturbing the peace. In an especially heart-wrenching scene in Suffragette, Inspector Steed chooses to send the women home to their husbands to be dealt with directly after a rally, rather than throwing them in prison — a move that he knows will produce far worse results for the women. In what is perhaps the most tragic sacrifice of the film, Maud must leave home as her husband Sonny throws her out for being a part of the women’s movement, thereby also forcing her to leave behind her young son, George. What happens with George by the end of the film is almost unbelievable — except that the history books will reveal that is a truth in our most unbalanced history.
As the movie draws to a close, the action becomes more urgent, the fights more serious, the investment direr. Maud, now part of a group of militant suffragettes, devotes herself entirely to the cause, desperate to succeed and refusing to be rejected after all she has given. At its conclusion, the film recreates one of the most memorable and horrifying moments in the women’s movement’s history, as Emily Davison becomes the martyr of the movement, publicly sacrificing herself for the attention of the King, and through him, the entire world.
As far as history lessons go, Suffragette delivers an important one, imparting the wisdom that a small group of determined individuals should not be doubted in their mission to accomplish their goals; after all, the women did receive the right to vote in Britain, and in the U.S. shortly thereafter. This is an important film because of the education it delivers, but it is also important because of the way it delivers it. In so many films that seek to empower women, there is still a sense that the film is being shot through a male lens. By that I mean that men are still the focal point, that women still vie for men’s attention, that there is still a clear desire to “sell” the women’s story to a male audience. Suffragette director Sarah Gavron does an excellent job of telling the women’s story through a women’s lens, rarely focusing on scenes with men as the central characters, and instead choosing to foreground the women and their struggles, their thoughts, their aspirations, their sacrifices, and their success.
The only real flaw of this film, in my opinion, was its pacing. I felt that Maud too quickly went from 0-100 in the cause, and her rushed commitment without much explanation minimized the true sacrifice and dedication that members of the women’s movement had to have. However, despite this hasty allegiance, writer Abi Morgan does a good job of balancing what seems like an initially easy involvement with a realistic chronology of events that shows that being a part of the movement, as well as continuing to be a part of it, is far more trying than the mere decision to join in the first place.
Though Suffragette came out in 2015 and was led by a star female cast of Academy Award-nominated and winning actress, it received very little publicity or review. And that, in part, is why this movie is important. Of course women have come leaps and bounds in the last century to gain equality and fight for equity among the sexes, but the fact of the matter remains that there is just less interest in women’s issues, even in an area as seemingly insignificant as the Hollywood screen. Women have come far in their history, but there is still a long way to go before their issues and demands make the front page of the papers — but that’s why we watch movies like Suffragette. Suffragette, like many films detailing similarly marginilized subject matter that go unnoticed, are made to remind us that the efforts and the fights aren’t over — and in fact, they’ve barely just begun.