The story of the British suffragettes, who resorted to militant action in their campaign for women to get the vote, has been particularly well documented from the point of view of the articulate upper and middle class women involved, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, played here in an effective cameo by Meryl Streep. Many working class women however were also involved in the struggle and Morgan and Gavron have taken as their central character a composite, fictional working class heroine, Maud (Mulligan), a wife and mother, struggling to make a living in the harsh environment of an East End laundry. Maud is drawn into the movement by her workmate Violet (Anne-Marie Duff). Although at first reluctant, Maud gradually comes to believe that without the vote the lives of her and women like her will never improve.
The film is particularly effective in its recreation of the period. The horse drawn buses of 1912 Oxford Street, the horrendous conditions in the laundry run by a bullying and sexually abusive boss (Geoff Bell) and the gloomy East End tenement blocks. And it tells its story through well drawn and convincing characters, who are much more than mere mouthpieces for their cause.
Mulligan as Maud, who loses her home, her husband Sonny (Whishaw) and small son (Adam Michael Dodd) to the cause and at one point is subject to the horror of forced feeding in jail, is superb in the role. One of the most interesting among the supporting characters is Edith (Bonham Carter), a pharmacist who provides a base for the suffragettes in her shop and who is a passionate believer in education for women.
This a primarily the story of the women but Whishaw, whose sensitive persona makes him initially unlikely casting as the husband who brutally throws his wife out on the street because of her political activities and separates her from their son (women at this time had no rights over their children) brings an extra dimension to his character as a man, who is also a victim of the male culture of the period. While an interesting contemporary parallel is made through the character of Inspector Arthur Steed (Gleeson), who uses his experience tracking the Fenians in Ireland in covert surveillance, including for the first time the use of undercover photography, in combating what society perceives as terrorism by the women. Their direct action, masterminded in the film by Edith, includes bombing post boxes and other communications and at one point an MPs “second home”, but always property, not people.
The film ends with the martyrdom of Emily Davison (Natalie Press), who met her death under the hooves of the King’s horse at the Derby. It drew the world’s attention to the British campaign for female suffrage, though ironically it was the First World War, where women on the home front took the place of the men, who were being slaughtered in France, which finally got a limited number of women the vote in 1918. Full female suffrage for all women over 21 didn’t happen until 1928. In some parts of the world, it still hasn’t.
Every young woman who has ever said “I’m not going to vote. There’s no point” should see this film. Women fought, suffered and died to get us the vote. Use it.
Review by Carol Allen