Women are still far from having achieved equal rights almost everywhere in the world, but think how much worse we would be without the right to vote—those of us who have that right, that is. We make up half of the world’s population, yet some of us are still denied the vote, and those who have it won it only through great struggle—and, as title cards at the end of Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette point out, shockingly recently in many nations.
In Britain, where the film is set, full rights weren’t achieved until 1928; Swiss women couldn’t vote until 1971; and Saudi Arabian women are still waiting. Yet most of us know very little about the fight to win women’s suffrage, largely because popular culture has been so quiet on the subject: This is the first feature film about its evolution in Great Britain. Of course, just the fact that Suffragette explores an important and underreported topic isn’t enough to make it worth watching. What does is how its episodes and attitudes register with searing immediacy while feeling true to their time period.
Unfortunately, things haven’t progressed enough, 100 years later, to make the pervasive contempt for women in Suffragette’s early-20th-century London surprising, but the extent to which even privileged women were hobbled by disenfranchisement is made frustratingly clear. When a wealthy suffragette’s enraged husband bails her out of jail, she cannot persuade him to free her comrades, and has no power to write the check herself—even though, as she protests, the marital money he now controls was originally hers.
The even harsher oppression of working-class women is surfaced mostly through Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a fictional composite who serves as the audience surrogate. Orphaned at age four, Maud has toiled since she was seven at the laundry where her mother was scalded to death, working long hours for much less pay than the men there earn for doing less. Worse yet, the sexual assault she endured for years from her boss when she was a girl left her traumatized, stigmatized, and pregnant—“damaged goods” expected to be grateful that any man would marry her and raise her son as his own. And when she protests after her husband, Sonny (Ben Wishaw), throws her out of the house for her activism, and forbids her to see her son, he reminds her that she, as a mother, has no legal rights: “The law says he is mine.”
Many will be surprised by how militant these suffragettes had become by 1912, the year in which the story begins. As their leader, Emily Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), puts it, women had asked for the vote peacefully for 50 years by then, only to be ridiculed and ignored. It was time to act—and acting often meant blowing things up, from mailboxes to the country mansion of David Lloyd George, a prominent member of Parliament. In addition to being the audience surrogate, Maud is a kind of Zelig who manages to be present at many of this movement’s high points, highlighting the group’s actions and frustrations and being targeted as a possible rat by the police inspector who’s pioneering new methods of surveillance to try to crack the back of the suffragette movement.
Maud participates in rallies and hunger strikes in jail, witnesses a speech by Mrs. Pankhurst, and accompanies Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press) to the Derby and sees her commit the ultimate sacrifice to draw attention to their cause, an act that finally galvanized worldwide support. But as embodied by Mulligan, Maud feels nothing like a plot contrivance. The camera sticks close to the actress, homing in on Maud’s face as she dresses, hugs, or plays with her son, her smile joyful and her eyes practically aglow with love. As Maude gradually becomes politicized, her initial instinct to appease and apologize slowly gives way to self-assurance as she sits straighter, looks people in the eye more, and speaks with steely intensity.
Suffragette has been fairly criticized for failing to show the women of color who were part of the crowds supporting the cause, and, aside from Maud’s interactions with her son, the subplot involving her family cranks up the heartbreak in ways that feel out of sync with the rest of the film. The falsest moment comes when she talks her way into her apartment to see her son for the first time since being thrown out. Mulligan’s tender ferocity has the makings of a powerhouse scene, but her performance is undermined by the melodrama of having Maude arrive just as George is to be whisked away by his adoptive parents, an arrangement Sonny hadn’t even told her about.
But as abominably as Sonny acts toward his wife, he isn’t a bad man. He’s just conflicted and cowardly, concerned about keeping up appearances in a culture that expects him to keep his wife—whom he does seem to love, as evinced in their earlier scenes—under control. That fairly complicated combination of traits is typical of the film, whose conscientious avoidance of anachronism make it feel engagingly alive.