We’ve come a long way, ladies.
There was once a time I couldn’t have written this review or even been in a management position at this paper.
I couldn’t have voted in elections, and while I might have been able to have a job, my pay wouldn’t be my own and wouldn’t come anywhere near what my partner would make.
These are things we know, but they’re also things we don’t often think about. Despite all the inequalities we still face as females, the struggles of those who came before us are all too often forgotten.
“Suffragette” brings those early trials to light in a film that at times is extremely subtle and other times is so in your face that it’s a little disconcerting. But, maybe that’s the point.
The story follows Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) in 1912 London. She’s a 24-year-old laundress who has worked at the local laundry house since she was 7. She never knew her father and followed her mother into the laundry business, rising to lead laundress by the age of 17.
Maud doesn’t initially see anything wrong with the life she’s built. She works her hours and comes home to a husband, Sonny (Ben Whitshaw), to whom she dutifully turns over her earnings, then cares for her young son, George (Adam Michael Dodd). It’s the life she’s made and the only life she knows.
A fellow laundress, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), is the one who introduces Maud to the suffrage movement. It’s not something Maud has interest in, but after having to give testimony before Parliament in the movement’s effort to gain equal rights, she’s encouraged to do her own part.
Maud joins a group of London suffragettes whom we today would call “terrorists.” The movement espoused by Elizabeth Pankhurst (Meryl Streep in a ridiculously short cameo) has decided words are no longer sufficient in their fight. The women’s violent efforts start with throwing bricks at store windows, then bombs in mailboxes, then finally blowing up an unoccupied house.
Streep is seriously in the movie for a couple of minutes max — hello, marketing ploy — so Pankhurst’s philosophies are acted out here by Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), the wife of a pharmacist, who practices medicine in the back of the shop. Edith is the militant driving force behind the violent acts of this group of “activists.”
The women’s actions prompt the men in leadership to get scared and work to stop the women by any means necessary. There’s a bloody riot, where many women are knocked down and beaten, before some of them, including Maud and Edith, are taken to prison.
Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson) is brought in to track the women and find the mastermind behind their efforts, silencing them once and for all.
Mulligan takes Maud from a quiet, content woman who doesn’t know she deserves more to an active member of this revolutionary group in a role that will turn heads concerning her skills. We watch Maud go from a meek, mild, docile wife to a raging hellion who will take no prisoners and sacrifice her very life for the cause, if need be.
But maybe, even more impressive is Bonham Carter. Perhaps I’ve gotten so used to her outlandish roles that I forget she can be a serious actress. In Tim Burton’s films, and even the Harry Potter film series, she’s been loud, abrasive and downright kitschy at times. But as Edith, she’s quietly determined, yet just as imposing.
All of this puts me in a bit of a dilemma concerning “Suffragette.” On one hand, watching this group of women fight for their rights is brilliant to watch. They are extremists, though, which makes it hard to root for them. After they blow up a house, I was rooting for Steed to catch them, honestly.
And the trials and tribulations Maud goes through are a bit heavy-handed, to be perfectly honest. She loses everything in order to make her voice heard. Her struggles are so severe, they feel forced. They even make the laundry house manager (Geoff Bell) the stereotypical lecher who can’t keep his hands to himself.
The creative team decides to destroy Maud’s life in every way possible, which left my mind imagining what horrible thing would come in the next scene. A TB diagnosis? An amputation? Maybe she would get shot and left for dead in a dark alley?!? Her struggles are piled on and over-the-top, but I suppose they help illustrate the point. Maybe.
After all, it’s a film about women made by women — director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan. It’s also a film that makes you think. Just what lengths would you go to in order in order to achieve your goals? Throw bricks? Plant a bomb? Lose your son? Just how much is too much?
Bottom line here: “Suffragette” paints an interesting portrait of an extremely important historical time, but it’s so in-your-face that the point is almost lost amidst the flotsam and jetsam of its melodrama.