It can be risky critiquing a film homage to heroines of feminism, especially one with a star cast that includes Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Whishaw and a Meryl Streep cameo. Respect for the cause, however, does not guarantee respect for the film, and this one chooses a very limited lens with which to view this episode of history. It does have high production values, narrative authenticity and sensitivity for the feminist struggle in early 20th century Britain. But it gets lost in balancing the broader sweep of history that shapes gender relations and the impact of particular individuals.
The story line is uni-linear, the atmosphere dark and claustrophobic, and much of the acting is melodramatic, with long close-ups of Mulligan’s finely nuanced expressions recording her progress from an abused laundry worker to what today would be called a radicalised political terrorist. The historical lens is so myopic that you could walk away believing the vote was won by a few protesting women, the bombing of some public letterboxes and a suffragette who threw herself under the King’s horse. No more struggle…job done! Of course, that is not true and the struggle continues.
Despite these limitations, it’s a finely crafted British film. The fictional heroine Maude Watts is an avatar for the British working class women who risked everything, including their lives, in fighting for the vote. Men of all classes are the demons of this tale, and one of its chilling insights is how the most dangerous enemies of suffragettes were husbands. Patriarchal governments left it to ordinary menfolk to sort out their unruly women in an era where wives were legally subordinate to husbands. Maude’s contempt for her treatment at work and home propels her into the swirling orbit of violent protest where “war is the only language men listen to”. Evicted by her husband for shaming him, she is left with nothing; by law, even her son was her husband’s property.
During the struggles, over one thousand British women were imprisoned and treated shamefully, a fact only acknowledged in the film’s closing credits. Admittedly, historical judgement is difficult to translate into cinematic language, but many films have done it better. If you are interested in the history of feminist struggle from the viewpoint of the small people who made up the bigger story you will like this film.
Director: Sarah Gavron
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter