This 2015 film about women fighting for the right to vote in England tackles an almost forgotten but nevertheless compelling struggle for women and men alike. Don’t take that right for granted. The suffragette movement in England has received less cinematic attention than in the US [2004 film “Iron Jawed Angels” about the American suffragette Alice Paul] until now, with the release of Suffragette.
Suffragette opens outside a London laundry in 1912, where 24-year-old Maud Watts (the talented Carey Mulligan) has worked in squalid conditions as a laundress since she was a child. While delivering laundry, she accidentally witnesses a riot for the right to vote. One of her co-workers is participating in the suffragist movement and soon Maud becomes involved, almost against her will. When the co-worker cannot testify before parliament about the moral obligation to give women their right to vote, Maud becomes the reluctant witness who gives testimony.
The leader of the women’s movement is Emmaline Pankhurst (a cameo role from Meryl Streep) who inspires women to challenge the status quo. When parliament does not follow through on their promise to change the law, Maud soon learns about the consequences of fighting for women’s rights, including the collusion on the part of the government, business, and police.
Pankhurst’s main organizers, Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) and her sympathetic husband, encourage Maud to take an increasingly high-risk role which results in a criminal record and family disintegration. As the government continues to ridicule the idea of women voting, the movement builds and succeeds in winning equal voting rights eight years after the US ratifies the Nineteenth Amendment to the constitution.
The cast is exceptionally strong and watchable. Nonetheless, the film suffers from a curious “saggy middle” in the narrative, when the passion and emotionally electrifying hopelessness of the women should be rising to a crescendo. The cinematographer lingers on scenes too long, minimizing the painful sacrifices being made, but beautifully recreating historical London.
Suffragette is an eye-opening film with political relevance for today. It is a reminder that not so long ago half of America was disenfranchised. It speaks for the suppressed and silenced, not exclusively to the women’s rights movement but to all human rights battlegrounds. The sacrifice women made in England for the right to vote—including force feeding suggestive of water-boarding—reminds of us what is at stake. Suffragette could have been even better, but it shouts: go out to vote!