Why now? You ask yourself that question while watching Suffragette, a vibrant, vigorous movie about the fight for voting rights for British women in the early part of the 20th century. Then the light dawns. The sad truth is that gender bias has never stopped spreading its toxins and I don’t mean just the current race for U.S. President.
Is the movie a true story? Not really. Carey Mulligan’s character, Maud Watts, is a fictional composite meant to represent the women of the time, content to work and be exploited by their bosses and husbands until, well, they aren’t anymore. Meryl Streep shows up for a spiky cameo as militant advocate Emmeline Pankhurst, who suggests that her ladies stop being genteel and start throwing bricks. Then there’s Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), who thought she could win attention to the cause by stepping in front of King George’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby and getting herself stomped to death. She was right. A high price for a media spotlight.
What makes Suffragette a relevant rabble-rouser, besides Mulligan’s fierce, affecting performance, is the way it won’t bow to the kind of Hollywood formula that tsk-tsks about how bad it was then — only to wrap everything up with a comfy banner that says, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” The feminist struggle continues. And it powers through this movie even when the contours of the story flirt with the trite. It helps that two women are at the helm — director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) and screenwriter Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady).
In lesser hands, Maud’s odyssey from workslave to activist would have been a catalogue of female anguish. We see Maud slaving at the laundry alongside her husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), and too near her handsy boss, Mr. Taylor (Geoff Bell). Another co-worker, Violet Miller (the excellent Anne-Marie Duff), pushes her to join the Women’s Social and Political Union. Still, Maud is reluctant, preferring to hide her head at home, caring for her husband and young son. When fate intervenes — as it does in this type of film — Maud is called on to testify in Parliament and to feel genuine rage when the prime minister rejects the voting-rights bill. In tandem with pharmacist Edith Ellyn (a brilliant, bracing Helena Bonham Carter), Maud finds the stirring of a revolutionary inside herself. The price is losing everything.
There are times when the movie piles on troubles with too heavy a hand. At other times, Suffragette blazes with a fire that cannot be denied. And you see it all on Mulligan’s wonderfully expressive face. For all the rich detail added by cinematographer Edu Grau, production designer Alice Normington and costume designer Jane Petrie, it is that human face that makes this feminist history relatable to this generation and to generations to come. In a sea of Hollywood escapism, Suffragette — flaws and all — is a movie that matters.