Suffragette takes us back to the feminist movement in its glorious bloom in the late 19th and early 20th century. It is a lovely, empathetic and moving ode to the countless sacrifices made by not only as a political statement, but a deeply humanizing character arc.
Carey Mulligan plays Maud Watts, a fictional laundry worker who is somewhat reluctantly swept up into the call for women’s voting rights in London during its pivot from a polite political discourse to militant — some would say terroristic — movement. The characters around around her are real-life suffragette foot soldiers, including Helena Bonham Carter as Edith Ellyn, Natalie Press as Emily Davison and Meryl Streep in a brisk but exhilarating cameo as the movement’s charismatic, aristocratic leader Emmeline Pankhurst.
For her time, Watts doesn’t seem to have it too bad; she works long and backbreaking hours at the factory laundry, where her expertise in pressing the delicate linens and lace of the upper crust has earned her a supervisory position at a young age. She and her husband (Ben Whishaw), who also works at the laundry, share a cramped flat with their adorable son. They are not people of means, but their lives are filled with contentment and lots of love.
It is this foundation that Suffragette leverages most effectively; Maud is not particularly political, and seems content with what she has. But as the fight for women’s voting rights begins to bubble up, and with the encouragement of prominent, intellectual women all around her, she takes a fledgling interest. What she does not realize at the outset is how much she has to lose.
After years of asking nicely, the cause has shifted at the behest of Pankhurst, who is calling for civil disobedience and disruptive vandalism, all in the name of attracting attention in the press. But it’s also attracted the attention of authorities, who have already turned Pankhurst into a fugitive and are now on the lookout for her acolytes. Maud, now under the influence of the cause, is quickly becoming one.
But her first run-in with the law has an unintended effect: Her husband, distraught at the shame that her arrest has brought upon them, shows another side: He is clearly giving in to outside pressures when he forbids her to participate further. She is smitten, however, not only with the cause, but with her new confidantes, who hold enough sway to keep her quietly engaged.
Another arrest — and a longer, harrowing prison stay — are the last straw for Maud’s husband. He shuts her out completely and cuts off her contact with their son, which we learn is his right to do. Back then, men made the custody decisions, and with no recourse for mothers. It is a reality that sets up Suffragette’s most heartbreaking moment, a decision that is devastating but also … oddly understandable.