***These are historical events, so spoilers do not apply***
The most famous political movement in Britain campaigning for voting rights for women began in 1903, formed by Emmaline Pankhurst, and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. Beginning as a pressure group organising protests and demonstrations, it went on to advocate violent means to get attention, including smashing windows, blowing up post boxes with gunpowder, and even attacking the home of a minister, using a large home-made explosive device. In one famous incident, caught on film cameras, Emily Davison walked in front of the King’s horse on Derby Day, in 1913. She died from her injuries four days later, and became a famous martyr for the cause.
This recent film was appropriately directed by a woman, Sarah Gavron, and features many excellent roles for women, including all the leads. Even if you know nothing about these historical events, the cast alone makes this worth watching. Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Romola Garai, and many others all turn in convincing performances as fictional characters caught up in the rurbulent events of those times. Meryl Streep makes a brief appearance as Emmaline Pankhurst, and Natalie Press plays the unfortunate Emily Davison. Male roles are also well served, with Ben Wishaw as the conflicted husband of Mulligan’s character, and Brendan Gleeson reliable as the Special Branch policeman tasked with arresting the members of the group.
From the start, the action focuses on working-class women toiling at hard labour in a laundry, in the poorest area of London. They do all the hard work, as the men make deliveries, and act as overseers. The women (including many young girls) work in dangerous and uncomfortable conditions, for a very small wage, much less than the pay received by the men who work there. They are expected to tolerate the sexual advances of the odious foreman, and at home, their life is little more than servitude to their husbands, as they have no rights whatsoever.
One day, Maud (Mulligan) is sent to deliver a package in the centre of London. As she makes her way there, she is caught up in a Suffragette protest, with members smashing shop windows in one of the exclusive shopping streets of the city. Later, the wife of a sympathetic M. P. comes to the laundry, asking women to attend Parliament, to make statements about why they should have the vote. Maud reluctantly delivers her statement to Lloyd George, and when the women return to hear the result of the vote, a disturbance follows, and Maud is arrested. During the protest, the women are treated cruelly by the police, with many badly beaten, and dragged around. Maud is imprisoned along with others, and whilst in prison, she meets Emily Davison.
This incident, and talking to the other women involved, inspires the previously timid Maud to join the group. Along with a local Chemist,(Bonham-Carter) Emily Davison, and others, she becomes part of the militant group using explosives around the city. Another spell in prison results, showing how the hunger strikers were force-fed and restrained, leaving Maud becoming more determined to keep up the struggle. She loses her job, and returns home to find that her husband (Wishaw) has banished her from the house, and will no longer even allow her to see her young son, George. Despite not being the boy’s biological father, her marriage to him has given him total control over her life, and of that of her son. The desolate Maud is left with only the cause, and is tasked to accompany Emily Davison to the Derby, in an attempt to confront the King at the famous horse race.
This film is very good on so many levels. The conditions of the working classes at the time are accurate, and the unusual association of the poor women with their upper-class compatriots is well-handled too. Costume and sets are convincing, and some scenes are actually filmed inside The Houses of Parliament. Every one of the cast delivers a fine performance, with Mulligan on form as Maud, and Gleeson showing his displeasure at the treatment of the women with some nuance too. Even the scene at The Derby, an event familiar to most people in Britain, feels strangely chilling in colour, with the gaiety of the crowds contrasting with the sombre and shocking suicide of Emily Davison.
Here’s the trailer. I recommend this film as something different, in historical drama.