I know what you’re thinking. We’re creeping up on awards time, and here’s a British flick with a big name, bullet-proof cast (Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, and Meryl-freaking-Streep), covering an historic topic having to do with patriarchal oppression and women rising up and making positive social change, and there’s probably a lot of hugging and crying and marching with stern looks on everyone’s faces, and isn’t there something out there that’s not trying to be so leaden and heavy?
Thing is, though, most of what Sarah Gavron’s surprisingly effective and moving film concerns is the sacrifices we’re forced to make when we choose to fight against injustice. This isn’t a film that pays lip-service to these hardships while extolling the virtues and glory of being on the right side of history, instead it shows us the totality of what’s required in order to achieve significant social change, while actually making a kind of case for those too scared, or with too much to lose, to take arms. We might most of us be cowards when push comes to shove, but the film takes pains to show how some of our worst fears are completely justified.
Maud (Mulligan) begins as anything but a rebel. She’s been working at the same industrial London laundry since she was seven-years-old, and finally reached a title of some authority, even if she had to let herself get repeatedly molested by the crooked foreman (Geoff Bell) in order to get there. With a husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), and a young son, George (Adam Michael Dodd), Maud is more or less content to let things continue as they have, right up until she happens into a suffragette uprising, with women throwing rocks through store front windows, while chanting “Votes for Women.”
Intrigued, if more than a little frightened, Maud embarks on a slow journey to self-actualization, falling under the oratory spell of Emmeline Parkhurst (Streep), the legendary leader of the women’s movement. Soon, Maud finds herself arrested, along several fellow activists, and spends a week in prison with such scintillating figures as Edith Ellyn (Bonham Carter) and Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), women fully committed to the cause. In taking up with them, however, Maud loses Sonny, who disavows her, and, far more heartbreakingly, George, whom Sonny forbids her to see (among many other brutally unjust laws, men had complete custody of their children). With nowhere else to turn, Maud joins the cause wholeheartedly, and in so doing, attracts the further attentions of British intelligence, lead by lead Inspector Arthur Steed (Gleeson), who charts the women’s progress with a giant map and a series of headshots, like you might with a sophisticated criminal syndicate.
The film perfectly captures that time period in 1912, when the uprising was met with pure derision, scorn, and contempt from the majority of the population. Men whose authority they saw no need to be challenged, women who saw nothing but trouble with the idea of massive change, the women suffragettes had to strike out on their own, finding their courage as a collective until finally the tide began to turn a bit later in the decade.
Naturally, part of the film’s surprising punch comes from its powerhouse cast – Mulligan, for one, is absolutely captivating – but a good deal comes from screenwriter Abi Morgan’s decision to play it straight, avoiding melodramatic hokum in favor of tightly wrought scenes of struggle, dissent, and sacrifice. Near the end, after Steed has once again had Maud picked up and taken to his office, the two square off in a no-holds-barred shouting match which ends with Maud, now childless, homeless, beaten down but as yet unbowed telling the Inspector how certain she is that they will win this fight. It’s pretty galvanizing stuff.
It also turns out absolutely true, as well. The film is loaded with similar verve – “Deeds not words!” is another one of the movement’s mantras – which gives you a strong sense of just how this band of brave, indomitable women were able to finally turn the tide and earn a major victory for egalitarianism (one that is sadly still being waged, only now with continued economic inequality). Still, there’s no disavowing the significance of what these women managed to accomplish. That history proved Maud correct (England finally allowed full female voting rights in 1928) is almost beside the point: Maud knows how this thing is going to go down, despite her personal suffering, and finally, in that one electrifying moment between them, Arthur Steed finally recognizes it as well.
Find more confounding amusements and diversions at his blog, Sweet Smell of Success, or read his further 142-character rants and ravings at @kafkaesque83.