The Reason It’s Called Suffrage

Suffragette looks at the issue of women getting the vote in England through a tightly focused lens. While it doesn’t tell the whole story, it’s effective at telling what it does show.

The central character is Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), who works in a commercial laundry in London’s East End along with her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw). Her world revolves around her child, her husband, and work, pretty much in that order. At first she has no place in her life for the struggle for voting rights. But when a coworker, Violet Miller (Ann Marie Duff) is invited to speak before a parliamentary commission, Maud decides to attend the hearing to support Violet. Violet show up on the appointed day with her face bruised from a beating by her husband, so Maud is drafted to make the statement. For the first time she vocalizes her thoughts about the world where she has no rights and is at the mercy of men.

The commission turns out to be a sham meant to placate women while leaving everything the same. Instead the government chooses Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson) to carry out surveillance of the Voting Rights movement with the intension of breaking its leadership. Maud gets caught up in the protests that greet the commission’s report and is arrested. It sets her on the path toward radicalization as she loses what she had, but then finds a new community within the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), including its founder Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) and a veteran of the struggle, pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter).

Director Sarah Gavron and writer Abi Morgan keep the focus on Maud, so that her emotional journey becomes the audience’s journey as well. With all of Maud’s losses, it sends the audience through the emotional wringer over and over again. The male side of the story is represented by Inspector Steed who is firmly committed to stopping the women, even as he recognizes he may lose the battle. In some respects it makes the film claustrophobic, so you don’t get a broad view of the world at that time. The story leads up to the singular moment that broke the resistance to suffrage. It’s well-staged by Gavron, but it’s not an easy trip to get to it.

Thankfully the two main actors are up to the task. Mulligan’s performance is outstanding and keeps the audience’s sympathy throughout. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her nominated for an Oscar for the role. Gleeson handles the role of Steed with restraint, even when he ruthlessly pursues his assignment.  Meryl Streep’s role is pretty much a cameo, but Bonham Carter admirably fills the place of the experienced crusader who helps Maud on her journey. One fun bit of trivia is that Helena Bonham Carter is the great-granddaughter of H.H. Asquith who, while not mentioned in the film, was the prime minister at the time Suffragette takes place and who was firmly against voting rights for women.

One aspect of the film that may hurt it with American viewers is that you’re basically rooting for terrorists, since the women embrace radical methods to break through to the conscience of men at the time. It is historically correct, and such actions were a main element of the changing of society in the 20th Century. While you had Gandhi and his disciple Martin Luther King Jr. focus on non-violent change, the majority of movements in those turbulent years did embrace violence at some point. Several people who became statesmen, such as Nelson Mandela, Menachim Begin, and Anwar Sadat, used violence early in their struggles. While we may want black-and-white contrast, history is usually told in shades of gray.

While it has its weaknesses, I’d recommend watching the film to be reminded that the right to vote and be represented has always been a struggle that people have suffered to achieve. It’s a topical message again in these days when groups talk about restricting rights. Do we really want to go back to how things were?

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