Suffragette

January 6, 2016
Carey Mulligan in 'Suffragette' (2015)
Carey Mulligan in 'Suffragette' (2015)

It’s a common tactic when making a film about an historical moment to focus on a single participant. Make that character fictional and you have more room to move, being able to channel all the important points into an Everyman – or Everywoman. In Suffragette, Carey Mulligan plays that role. She is Maude Watts, an East End laundry worker in her mid-20s, who is gradually brought around to the cause of votes for women through witnessing the injustices of laws made and enforced by men.

Maude is the lens through which we view the times, and the conditions of women’s lives. It is 1912, the year when the womens’ suffrage movement turned to direct action in response to the inertia of politicians. Edwardian London is grimy and disorderly. The laundry where Maude works is presided over by Mr. Taylor (Geoff Bell), an uncouth brute who terrorises his employees and molests the younger ones as if he enjoyed the rights of a feudal overlord.

Maude lives in a tiny apartment with her taciturn husband, Sonny, (Ben Whishaw), who also works at the laundry, and her young son, George (Adam Michael Dodd). She has no other life, and no prospects. Her first glimpse of the suffragettes comes when she watches a group of activists throwing stones through the windows of West End shops, shouting “Votes for Women!”

Maude’s workmate, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), is a suffragette who agrees to testify about the conditions of her life to a parliamentary committee chaired by Lloyd George. When Violet turns up covered in bruises, Maude is obliged to take her place. Her testimony is delivered in a simple, unpretentious manner which wins the admiration of the sisterhood. She is still not an active member, but that changes when she attends a demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament, where Lloyd George breaks the news that the Honourable Members have decided to deny women the vote once again.

The demonstration becomes agitated, and the police move in, hitting women with truncheons, putting in the boot. Maude is arrested, along with Violet, and Edith (Helena Bonham Carter), a pharmacist and ring-leader of the group.

A week in prison completes the first stage of Maude’s radicalisation, but it virtually destroys her marriage. Sonny is horrified at his wife’s actions – more from timidity before the law than through mere chauvinism.

In prison Maude has her first meeting with Inspector Steed (Brendon Gleeson), an Irishman who has been brought in because of his experience in dealing with the Fenians. Steed is a staunch believer in law-and-order, but not unsympathetic to the cause. He believes in the need to put duty over sentiment, and worries that poor women like Maude are being exploited by rabble-rousers such as Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragette matriarch.

It is, in fact, a balcony address by Mrs. Pankhurst (played with ineffable authority by Meryl Streep), that completes Maude’s conversion, and sends her domestic life into free fall. From this point on she is a hundred percent behind the cause, and willingly takes part in the schemes devised by Emily, including the bombing of red post boxes and even Lloyd George’s unfinished house. Another bout of imprisonment and forced feeding only strengthens her resolve. The battle continues until Derby Day, when one radical action captures the eyes of the world.

Director, Sarah Gavron, and scriptwriter, Abi Morgan, have provided a powerful, tightly focussed story that could stand as a study in radicalisation for any cause whatsoever. Maud becomes a feminist, but her conversion is due to her growing outrage about the many injustices perpetrated on the innocent. Mrs. Pankhurst is both guru and guerrilla leader, addressing the faithful from the pulpit. “We don’t want to be law-breakers,” she intones. “We want to be law-makers!”

Carey Mulligan spends much of the film exuding humility and vulnerability, but her slow conversion is credibly accomplished. For today’s audiences there is no doubt that the suffragettes’ cause was just, but centuries of male authority did not collapse overnight. England would not allow all women to vote until 1928, whereas Australia took a more progressive approach, introducing womens’ suffrage in 1902, within a year of Federation. New Zealand led the world, giving women the vote in 1893.

Suffragette is an overdue film. The only other cinematic depiction of the suffragette movement that I can remember came in Mary Poppins (1964), and that’s best forgotten. Gavron has not made a melodrama out of this tale, although there was plenty of scope to do so. It’s a story about standing up for one’s convictions, about going into battle for a just cause. We understand that the moral courage shown by the suffragettes needs to be repeated by every society that values principle over the politics of prejudice and expediency.

Suffragette
Directed by Sarah Gavron
Written by Abi Morgan
Starring Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendon Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Meryl Streep, Romola Garai, Natalie Press, Geoff Bell
UK, rated M, 106 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 2nd January, 2016.