Suffragette is the story of oppressed women seeking the right to vote in early twentieth-century Britain.
Directed by Sarah Gavron, the film begins with “Maud Watts” (Carey Mulligan) working in a laundry where the male supervisor—a serial abuser of women—is a classic sociopath. “Maud” is caught up in an increasingly activist movement, and jailed for a week. After another incident, she finds herself thrown out of her home by her intimidated husband.
Meanwhile, the fictional Maud is inspired by the stirring leadership of the historical figure Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928, played by Meryl Streep in brief but essential scenes).
When “Maud” is then fired from her menial job, she momentarily retaliates by using a hot iron to burn the supervisor’s hand—an act at once literal and fittingly symbolic. Things grow worse when this earns her another arrest, including force-feeding when she goes on a hunger strike. A frustrated “Inspector Steed” (Brendon Gleeson) presses her to turn informant, although she refuses.
She discovers she can see her little boy only surreptitiously, until her husband “Sonny” (Ben Whishaw) ends even that: He gives up their child for adoption, dramatizing how bereft of rights she really is.
Nevertheless, the movement gives her purpose as she turns increasingly radical. She and some of her suffragette sisters have begun to disrupt society—progressing from engaging in minor riots to the severing of telegraph lines and even the bombing of His Majesty’s postal boxes.
Spoiler alert! When His Majesty King George V attends the Derby, “Maud” shows up with fellow suffragette Emily Davison (Natalie Press), another historical figure. The pair smuggle in a banner which they intend to unfurl for the cause. Instead, with the race in progress, Emily steps in the path of the horses and becomes a martyr for women’s rights everywhere. Actual black-and-white newsreel footage of Emily Davison’s funeral closes this inspirational tribute to a great and ultimately successful movement for justice, freedom, and equality.
Rating: Three and a half wooden nickels (out of four)