Is Carey Mulligan single-handedly reliving the story of the women’s movement in the United Kingdom? In “Far from the Madding Crowd,” released this spring, the actress was Bathsheba Everdene, Thomas Hardy’s headstrong Victorian. She inherits a farm, runs it with sweat and savvy, and goes in pursuit of the independent life — a daunting task given that men are in control, and three of them come courting.
Jump ahead about 40 years, and Mulligan is Maud Watts, a Londoner who toils long hours at a giant laundry, keeps her head down and accedes to the wishes of her piggish boss, even if it means submitting to his molestations — something he has been doing since she began working there, still practically a child.
But in “Suffragette,” written by Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady,” “The Hour”) and directed by Sarah Gavron (“Brick Lane”), Maud has finally had enough. A fictional tale set amid the real world of early 20th century England, the film tracks Maud’s political awakening and radicalization. One day, she’s a low-paid, hard-pressed working woman — a wife and mother, too (Ben Whishaw is her spouse, Adam Michael Dodd is George, their son). The next day, she’s addressing Lloyd George in Parliament, falling in with a band of rock-throwing, mailbox-bombing activists, and getting carted to jail by club-wielding police.
“Suffragette” is full of handsome period detail, the London streets teeming with horse-drawn carts, old trolleys, bicycles, and the earliest automobiles. The soot and grime of East London rowhouses lend a marked contrast to the stately manses on the posh side of town. Hats, coats, frocks, even the policemen’s uniforms — it’s a costume drama to be sure.
But the drama becomes very real, very fast, when windows are broken and buildings torched, when Maud — her job and her child taken from her — is arrested and sent to prison. Like the real-life suffragette Emily Wilding Davison (portrayed in the film by Natalie Press), Maud goes on a hunger strike and is eventually force-fed — a rubber tube shoved down her gullet.
Mulligan, who often looks as though she’s on the brink of tears, has plenty of reason to feel that way in “Suffragette.” The men in power are disdainful and dismissive; the voting-rights campaign has been going on, unsuccessfully, for close to 50 years, and peaceful protestations have gotten women nowhere. Maud’s husband, by no means a lout or a brute, nonetheless can’t take his wife’s newfound political zeal seriously.
Helena Bonham Carter is a pharmacist who holds meetings of the Women’s Social and Political Union in her back room, and Romola Garai is a society wife determined to bring about change. Meryl Streep shows up with her best British accent, playing women’s union leader Emmeline Pankhurst, standing at a balcony to offer a “never give up the fight” speech. Brendan Gleeson has the more slippery role of a police inspector trying to persuade Maud to turn informant. He gives her his card and his most piercing, pragmatic, sympathetic look.
If we now take a woman’s right to vote and to hold public office for granted, “Suffragette” reminds us that it wasn’t that long ago when things were different. Wives, mothers, factory workers, teachers, artists, even the (few) female scientists and doctors — a hundred years past, not a one could choose the politicians who represented them in government, who wrote the laws.
And so the women took to the streets and defied those laws.
“We break windows,” that firebrand Maud Watts says. “We burn things. Because war is the only language that men listen to.”
☆☆☆ 1/2 out of 5
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Natalie Press, Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Whishaw and Meryl Streep.
Director: Sarah Gavron.
Running time: 1:46.
Rated: PG-13, for violence, profanity, adult themes.