A sad lesson of history is that power is rarely shared without a fight.
In “Suffragette” the terrific Carey Mulligan plays a London woman who goes from placid wife, mother and laundress to bomb-tossing terrorist. Her goal: voting rights for women.
Set almost exactly 100 years ago, “Suffragette” takes place at a time when the suffrage movement had hit a wall. For decades British women had been peaceably seeking equality with their menfolk. They had petitioned their representatives. They’d demonstrated in an orderly fashion. And it had gotten them nowhere.
(The movie’s opening moments are filled with the voices of men pontificating on why women are too emotional and intellectually underachieving to be given a place at the political table. A woman, we’re told, should be happy to have her interests seen to by her husband, father, or brothers.)
In the character of Maud Watts (Mulligan), Abi Morgan’s screenplay gives us a lens through which we experience much of women’s struggle for equality.
As the picture starts Maud is living in more-or-less happy fashion with her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and their son George (Adam Michael Dodd, who has a crying scene to match Jackie Coogan’s in Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid”). Both adults work at the same laundry, a place of sweat and billowing steam where the owner sexually preys on the younger girls. They are not-quite impoverished but fairly content.
Maud is first exposed to the women’s movement when she witnesses a cadre of suffragettes heaving stones through store windows while chanting “Votes for women!” A co-worker (Anne-Marie Duff) begins talking up the movement and its leader, Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep in what amounts to a cameo role). At the last minute a reluctant Maud is recruited to describe conditions at the laundry before a parliamentary committee. She hopes for the best.
The best doesn’t happen. Peaceful rallies are broken up by club-wielding coppers. Mrs. Pankhurst goes underground, emerging publicly just long enough to make a stinging attack upon the authorities before vanishing once again.
Maud finds herself quickly becoming radicalized. She plots with other women at a pharmacy run by Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), whose knowledge of chemistry makes her an ideal bomb maker. Soon Maud is dropping sputtering explosive packages into public mailboxes and cutting telephone lines.
Meanwhile Maud’s activities and subsequent stays in jail — which include a hunger strike and forced feedings — alienate Sonny, who prevents her from seeing her son. (And, as it turns out, does much worse than that.)
“Suffragette” generates even more tension and moral outrage by cutting between the suffragettes’ terrorist campaign and the efforts of a police detective (Brendan Gleeson) to infiltrate the movement and bring it down. This officer is a curious figure — he may sympathize with the women but feels his duty is to the law. In any case, it is through him that we eavesdrop on backroom policy sessions that reveal just how determined His Majesty’s government is to keep women second-class citizens.
This film — the director is Sarah Gavron, who gave us “Brick Lane,” a fine film about a married East Indian woman’s illicit love affair — has been calculated to get the blood boiling. It works. Virtually everyone who sees it will be outraged.
But does it overplay its hand? In an effort to nail down all the wrongs that movement hoped to address, “Suffragette” puts poor Maud through the trials of Job. Lord, does this woman suffer. Couldn’t they have spread the misery around?
Ultimately “Suffragette” reminds that for every right we now take for granted, our forebears fought and often died battling a stubborn power structure. That’s a lesson worth remembering.