Suffragette, the new film about the battle for women’s rights in England, isn’t a definitive history of the movement. Instead, director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) takes a more personal approach, focusing on a working woman, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), who finds herself caught up in the events that eventually led to women winning the vote.
Some of the developments feel a bit predictable — shot in the dull hues of gray that match Maud’s life, Suffragette occasionally turns hard truths into platitudes — but the story is inspiring, buoyed by a fine cast, a pointed, important examination of the price paid for a shot at equality.
When the film opens in 1912, voting seems a vague dream to Maud, who toils at a laundry boiling and scrubbing, a hellish workscape she was born into (she was strapped to her own mother there as an infant). Maud’s husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), works there, too, and though they haven’t got much, they share a tiny flat with their little boy, George, cobbling together a life despite long hours, low pay, backbreaking labor and no hope of anything better.
One day Maud sees one of her co-workers, Violet (Anne Marie Duff), hurl a rock through a window with other suffragettes. Soon, everywhere she looks she spots signs of the increasingly active movement, including the office of her local pharmacist (a wonderful Helena Bonham Carter). Cajoled by Violet, Maud starts to listen. Soon she’s lying to her husband and joining in the action, meeting such real-life characters as Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press) and Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, who’s only on camera for a few minutes, though her character remains a motivational figure throughout, urging Maud and her sisters to “Never surrender. Never give up the fight.”).
Mulligan (Far from the Madding Crowd, The Great Gatsby, Shame) makes Maud’s transformation from timid, abused mother and wife to bomb-hurling rebel believable — she is beaten down by a system that has stripped her of everything she cares about and turned her into someone with nothing to lose. Gavron, using a script from Abi Morgan (who wrote the screenplay for The Iron Lady, about an entirely different sort of flinty British woman), also details the deprivations these women suffered: They were shunned by family, husbands and neighbors, beaten, kicked and arrested by police officers. One scene of a forced feeding, mercifully shot in quick, jittery cuts, is almost too grueling to watch.
Those quick cuts don’t always work so well; one protest scene, for example, is almost too confusing to follow. But Maud’s awakening is powerful enough to fuel the film. Facing a police inspector (Brendan Gleeson) who tells her the authorities will stop the suffragettes, Maud disputes his assurances: “We’re half the human race. You can’t stop all of us.” Her defiance is a potent reminder: Oppression exists. Never take freedom for granted. Never give up the fight.
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Anne Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Meryl Streep.
Director: Sarah Gavron
Screenwriter: Abi Morgan.
A Focus Films release. Running time: 109 minutes. Some intense violence, thematic elements, brief strong language and partial nudity. In Miami-Dade: Aventura, O Cinema Miami Beach; in Broward: Paradise, Gateway. Opens in more theaters Nov. 13.