Carey Mulligan shines as a heroine of the underclass in “Suffragette”

PORTLAND, OR – Set in London in 1912, Suffragette begins as we meet 24-year-old laundress Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) in a steamy sea of shirts. It looks sweltering to be trapped in a workhouse all day for 13 shillings a week (equal to barely over 57 pounds per week today), and the audio we hear sounds like radio newsreels, with men of Parliament droning on about how women shouldn’t be allowed to vote. It’s not only the blue and grey blouses that set a cold tone for the film.

While out on a delivery, a suffragette riot ensues around Maud, and shrill voices calling “votes for women!” can be heard as rocks smash through the glass of a nearby shop. Her eyes meet one of the women and she recognizes her co-worker, Violet (Anne Marie-Duff).

Image: Focus Features

Image: Focus Features

After another fateful encounter later that day, Violet invites Maud to hear a speech on women’s rights.  It’s the beginning of Maud’s soiree into the suffragettes. Soon thereafter, she meets Edith, (Helena Bonham Carter) a friendly and forward-thinking nurse who covers her son’s checkup costs and serves as an important example of power. While many women are arrested for protests and various riot participations, Edith is often only the victim of a stern lecture and threats. To lock up a nurse would cause more of a community stir, and no one cares about the plights of laundresses – they’re just human washing machines. If only a class system was part of the past.

Suffragette is full of history and we know these women are on the right side of it. However, their methods to achieve equality are questionable, making it all the more worth pondering. The phrase declared in the film is “five decades of peaceful protests,” and yet women still were not granted their voting voice. It’s that sentiment that makes their case for the rocks, bombs, and even more extreme lengths they feel they must go to seem justified in order to be heard. Women in the United States were granted the right to vote in 1920, eight years before the British ladies across the pond. I learned quite a lot from this movie.

Yet, in ways that a textbook cannot, this film so wonderfully shows us the cost that often comes with standing up for political beliefs. After a few run-ins with the police, Maud’s husband bars her from contact with her son, pointing out that the law allows for it. This, in turn, makes Maud even more radical for the cause, and the story escalates with some interesting turns.

Image: Focus Features

Image: Focus Features

It’s only later in the film that we get a few glimpses of Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), the political activist who led the suffragette movement and is largely credited with helping British women achieve the right to vote. She gives inspiring speeches and is shepherded in and out of cars with women all around her in order to prevent her capture by the police, even concealing herself with her veil and staging body doubles. It all seems so daring and romantic, to achieve a right we take for granted today. U.S. Voter turnout in 2012 was only 54 , and only 45 for those ages 18 to 29.

Though the storyline feels a bit clunky, writer Abi Morgan had to mold something out of true history, which is always a challenge. There is only one man on the women’s side throughout the film, a pity considering there was surely one dashing young man who wanted to see the other gender empowered. Even if it is just a fantasy, it would have made the lives of the women involved a little more exciting and slightly more hopeful.  Perhaps Morgan wanted the uncertain future of these women to feel clouded and grey. Even so, Maud Watts is an ordinary name for an extraordinary leading lady, who doesn’t have the clothes, money or power so often attributed to main characters in a period piece. Rather, she’s a passionate portrait of the underclass, and we need more heroines like her on the screen – and in the real world.