A young woman who works in a laundry becomes radicalized by the women’s suffrage movement as she bears witness to the human cost of being a second class citizen. In 1912, 16 years before the Representation of the People Act is passed in England, women still cannot vote. Maud (Carey Mulligan) has a good job as head laundress at the Glass Works. One day, as it comes time to deliver the bundles at the end of the day, she is asked to make the delivery herself, something that puts her in the midst of a violent demonstration of the suffrage movement. Women throw rocks through a store window and shout out slogans, then run away. The police come and rough them up and she is caught in the scuffle.
Soon Maud herself is participating in like demonstrations, and in the process loses everything she holds dear except her firm commitment to the cause. Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), the chief (upper class) spokesman and heroine of the movement, makes a brief appearance, eluding the net set by the police. The police bully without having an inkling of what the women are worked up about. Chief of policing on this particular case is Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson). He encounters Maud when she is new to the movement and tries to enlist her as an informer, but she writes him resolutely declining his offer, explaining that they are both soldiers, just on opposite sides. Addressing him as her equal seems to have an impact on him, and when the incarcerated women are force fed, a form of repulsive torture, he shows his humanity and complains about it.
The actresses are very good, especially Carey Mulligan as Maud, who sometimes moved me to tears. Her scenes with her husband and son, and in the laundry, show the dailiness of working women’s struggles. Screenplay by Abi Morgan details how women’s lives were not their own, beginning with their low wages, continuing through sexual harassment, and worst of all, having no power over their children. Anne-Marie Duff as Violet is an example of one who could not risk her growing family to participate in violent acts. As Edith Ellyn, a chemist and leader of the activists, Helena Bonham Carter looks happy to blow things up, and is her usual fearless self. It turns out she modeled her character on a real woman who taught the suffragettes how to do ju jitsu in self defense.
Husbands appear not clueless or cruel so much as conflicted and worried and set up to treat their women in ways they would rather not. Maud’s husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw, in a fine performance), tries to carry on without her when she is in prison. Mr. Ellyn, (Finbar Lynch, an excellent supporting player) does what he must to protect his wife from danger, even though sometimes he drives the getaway car after a bombing.
I had not considered the human cost of gaining the right to vote. How many years did I take it for granted when it was in fact hard won? The movie makes clear that women died in service to suffrage. I came out shaken, grateful to sacrifices made, especially by Emily Wilding Davison. She had been force fed 49 times while in prison. Later she did something so bold and brave it is still talked about 100 years later. Sarah Gavron, the director of the film, and Abi Morgan, the screenwriter, have done their research well, and created not just an educational thriller, but a moving social drama.