London, 1912: motor buses trundle over cobbles, and we settle in for the familiar comforts of the British period drama. Then a brick flies, a shop window shatters, and with a cry of “Votes for Women!” we have begun Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette.
The heroine of the title is not Emmeline Pankhurst; instead this is the story of Bethnal Green laundry worker Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan). Maud is a fiction, but a plausible one: a dutiful young wife and mother, already wearied by drudgery and an odious lech of a boss. She was only a bystander at first, but soon she is drawn into sedition, joining the battle for a ballot just as it swerves into militancy. The brute force of the moustachioed establishment is not slow to respond.
Setting her characters loose from history, Gavron’s tempo is urgent. The film’s set pieces of protest have a raw sense of vérité but smaller moments linger too. Even before Maud is first sent to prison, we see her caught behind grilles and gauzes of laundry; a late domestic scene with her irate husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) is crushingly sad.
Yet for the lead in a film built on fury, Mulligan is strangely understated. The problem may be structural: once Maud finds herself en route to the 1913 Derby alongside Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), we realise this is an entire film about the friend of the woman whose martyrdom defined her cause. Mrs Pankhurst appears eventually, but spirited in and out of scenes as per her fugitive status, casting Meryl Streep feels stunt-ish. You expect her to declare: “Peekaboo!”
Actually, the words put into the character’s mouths by Abi Morgan’s script are perfect: too much so. In a film filled with slogans, Maud gets the worst of it. Her demand that “If you want me to respect the law, make the law respectable” has been borrowed from 1920s US Supreme Court judge Louis Brandeis, and sounds like it.
I sit writing this aware that no one had to die before a horse so that I could vote. But still, I have to ask: does the film’s boldest call also undermine it? Gavron spotlights the lopsided sacrifice of working-class women; she also nudges you into reflecting how wide that gulf remains. For a tribute to a mighty victory, Suffragette leaves behind some awkward questions.