Greetings again from the darkness. Most “issues” movies go big in their approach to society-changing events and those that led the charge. Director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane, 2007) and writer Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, 2011) instead show us one little corner, a building block if you will, of the larger movement towards gaining women the right to vote in the UK. By focusing on the efforts of a small group of working class women in 1912, the struggle becomes one of flesh and blood, rather than granite statues.
Carey Mulligan stars as Maud Watts, a manual laborer at a commercial launderer. Her character is a composite of working class women of the time, and we come to appreciate her strength and the incredible sacrifices she makes for the greater cause. Maud seems to be a simple woman. She works hard, loves her son and is loyal to her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw). When first exposed to the civil disobedience of the suffragettes, Maud is caught in the crossfire of a rock-throwing frenzy. She recognizes faces and becomes intrigued with the mission. At first, Sonny tries to be supportive, but soon enough, he is confused, embarrassed and finally forced to take extreme measures. After all, no self-respecting man of the time could allow his wife to sneak about town throwing rocks, setting off bombs, and attending secretive meetings … all for the sake of some ridiculous notion of equality for women!
Helena Bonham Carter appears as the neighborhood pharmacist who is a key cog in the local movement – a movement that had been ongoing peacefully for decades. What’s interesting about her appearance is that Ms. Bonham-Carter is the great-granddaughter of H.H. Asquith, the Prime Minister of UK from 1908-1916. He was an outspoken opponent of the suffragette movement during its most critical time. Her appearance and role in the film is a bit of redemption for the actress and her family.
Deeds not Words. This became the rallying cry for these women thanks to their leader Emmeline Pankhurst. Meryl Streep makes an all-too-brief appearance as Ms. Pankhurst, but it’s a key moment in the film as it solidifies the cause for this group of women who needed to believe that they could make a difference.
Gender inequality seems such an insufficient term for what these women endured. Sexual abuse, domestic violence, unequal pay, hazardous work environments, and almost no child custody rights in disputes with men … these were all commonplace at the time, and the film does a terrific job of making the points without distracting from its central message. Director Gavron’s subtle use of differing color palettes is effective in distinguishing the man’s world from that of the women.
It’s clearly a snapshot of a society on the brink of a revolution, and a grounded yet emotional glimpse at those foot soldiers in the war on injustice. Though this story focuses on the UK, the end credits remind us that in the U.S., it took until 1920 to ratify the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote; and even more startling, Switzerland took until 1971 and the women of Saudi Arabia only this year obtained voting rights. The movie is a powerful personal story, and an effective history lesson on the irrationality involved in bringing about humanistic change.