The ongoing battle for equality of the sexes is an issue that is constantly debated in the media – and rightly so. The sense that there’s still a great deal of work to be done in society is the message at the heart of Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette (2015), which follows a group of women belonging to the British suffrage movement. At the centre of the film is Carey Mulligan’s Maud Watts, a working-class East Ender who toils long hours in a laundry for pitiful wages, married to an apathetic husband (Ben Whishaw) and with a child to care for.
Outside of work Maud notices a woman preaching the message of suffrage, something that is met by her colleagues with a mixture of jeers and jokes. These women are wives and mothers and, as they see it, they have more to worry about than a movement. But there are a few voices who stand out, most notably Maud’s friend Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), who knows that there’s a better, fairer system to be found. Abi Morgan’s script makes sure to paint a vivid but grounded portrait of what these women had to endure, day in, day out.
Maud’s younger colleagues are molested by their predatory foreman (Geoff Bell), while wives are expected to work long hours then cook and clean for their husbands. From the very beginning of Suffragette you immediately empathise with the atrocious conditions they have to bear. Through hapchance, Maud is invited to speak in front of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George (Adrian Schille). At this turning point, Mulligan eloquently expresses her character’s realisation of the injustice women face. While they may be dressed in petticoats and the men in starched-collars, this moment possesses a level of horror of the barefaced brutality women endure then and now across the world. Maud finds herself conflicted. She’s a hard worker and loving mother and wife, but gradually she is swept up in the movement and after her meeting with Lloyd George something changes in her. She begins attending protests and meets with fellow suffragettes including Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) and Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press).
Maud’s actions get her arrested but she fights on. Her husband throws her out, cutting her of from her little boy, but she also knows that this is a battle that must be won. At times Gavron’s latest has more in common with a political thriller than a period drama. Whispers are soon heard that the movement’s champion, Emmeline Pankhurst (Streep, in an extremely brief appearance), is to speak. The real strength of this scene lies in the reaction of the women gazing on, showing the hope for a better world that they’re more than willing to fight for come what may. Both Gavron and Morgan have steered their collaboration away from grand theatrics, instead favouring raw authenticity. There’s a stark reality to the lives of these women, and their passion and courage is infectious. Equally, however, the story behind the camera enriches Suffragette further. It’s a film made by women, about women, but to be viewed by all. As the credits role we’re reminded that the work begun by the likes of Watts is still not over.