SUFFRAGETTE. Starring: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter, Meryl Streep, Anne-Marie Duff, Natalie Press, Romola Garai, Brendan Gleeson, and Ben Wishaw. Directed by Sarah Gavron. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language). 106 min.

This historical, British period drama tells a story, based on fact, of a group of women who banded together as a protest movement to fight for equality and the right for women to vote. It depicts events that took place at a time when the British Parliament considered that "women are well represented by their fathers, their brothers, and their husbands". The film focuses on the life of a young laundress, Maud Watts, who worked in a London factory in 1912.

Maud (Carey Mulligan) becomes caught up accidentally in a street riot in which she recognises one of her co-workers, Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff). Sympathetic to their situation, the wife of a MP, Alice Haughton (Romola Garai), encourages the women to speak out in support of women's right to vote. Maud decides to testify when Violet is beaten by her husband. Later, she is arrested in a confrontation with Police, and her husband, Sonny (Ben Wishaw), forbids her to protest any more.

In prison, Maud makes brief contact with Emily Davison (Natalie Press), who knows Emmeline Pankhurst and the encounter proves an important one in setting her on a path to civil disobedience. It helps to turn a passive laundry woman into a person of determined action. Her later friendship for Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham-Carter), a pharmacist with the skill to make home-made bombs, cements Maud's sense of injustice, and her resolve deepens.  

Against her husband's wishes, Maud sneaks away to hear Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) speak at a political rally. She is thrown out by her husband and the media targets her as a suffragette. A brutal Police Inspector (Brendan Gleeson) tries cruelly to change her ways. He tells Maud that she can have freedom if she willing to act as an informer for her group, but Maud refuses.

Isolated from her husband, child, and home, Maud becomes committed fully to civil disobedience, and she turns to other forms of protest. Maud and her friend Emily Davison attend the Epsom Derby to personally hand a message to King George V, who is attending the event. Unable to do so, Emily decides to sacrifice her own life. To Maud's horror, Emily throws herself under the feet of the oncoming horses and dies tragically. Her death attracts world-wide attention, and Emily becomes the movement's first martyr for the cause.

Carey Mulligan is wonderful in the role of an oppressed woman who is drawn into the protest movement. In fighting resolutely for the equality of women, she authentically conveys a person who has experienced inequality and discrimination against women at a deeply personal level.

Subdued lighting and excellent use of close-ups give the movie great force. The photography in the film is mostly hand-held, which lends a sense of immediacy to the political action, and a look of urgent relevance, reminding the viewer that the fight for inequality of women's rights is not yet over. The conditions are harrowing at Maud's workplace and she has a sleazy, sexual-assaulting boss, who has moved on from Maud to harass younger girls. In these and other ways, the film suggests tellingly that similar conditions still exist. The point is very forcefully made by the roll-call at the end of the movie which lists the countries that now accept women's vote. In the year, 2015, Saudi Arabia still only promises it.

The movie includes news footage of real events, such as the funeral of Emily Davison, and both Mulligan and Bonham-Carter play their roles especially well. This is a tough, raw film of the remarkable things that women did in a particular period of Britain's history to claim their rights. Well-directed, photographed, acted and produced, it is a film of quality that educates as well as entertains. It powerfully tells the story of a group of women who were willing to lose everything in their fight for justice.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Transmission Films

Released December 26th., 2015

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