I’ve been looking forward to this movie for months – and for as intensely as I’ve followed movie news and reviews the past few years, I’ve heard very minimal buzz about it aside from my very close feminist friends. It’s gotten overlooked as a “movie to look forward to,” and it hasn’t been discussed in the Oscar conversations as I’d anticipated. And I’m genuinely perplexed about why.
The movie opens with images of main character Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) working in the laundry – this London in 1912 is gritty and overcast, Mulligan is wearing no (or extremely minimal) make-up, and the dulled monotony of her job as a laundress is displayed with intentional shots of her and other women going through the motions with tenuous resignation.
I appreciated that this film began as a conversation about class – undoubtedly, no feminist film or conversation is complete without acknowledging the added layers of oppression that often make womanhood so challenging. We watch as Maud starts out as a reluctant, almost happenstance participant in the British women’s fight for the vote, but the blatant inequality, violence, and unfairness of events she witnesses draw her deeper and deeper into becoming more radical. Mulligan’s performance was riveting – without unnecessary melodrama or excessive staging/posturing, she captured the essence of a truly downtrodden yet not defeated woman with grace and grit.
Written and directed by two women–Abi Morgan and Sarah Gavon–this film perseveres in its journey to explore a past that isn’t as distant as one would think. Helena Bonham Carter plays a savvy and determined pharmacist whose crusade for the vote is supported (mostly) by her husband–a rarity at the time. It was a relief to see Carter play someone other than a cartoon for once, and she mastered this role with similar subtlety and poise. Meryl Streep’s cameo as Emma Pankhurst felt a little forced – I wonder if her availability for filming was limited. All of the other female characters got time to reveal themselves, while her performance was so brief and unsatisfying.
The three main male characters–Brendan Gleeson as the investigator, Ben Whishaw as her spouse, and Adam Michael Dodd as their son George–are all finely drawn in realism. Both Gleeson and Whishaw’s characters are unlikable and contribute very notably to Maud’s unhappiness and state of oppression–yet they are not sloppy or convenient caricatures but instead nuanced reflections of that time. I came away more resentful of a society that creates men so socialized by patriarchal systems, laws, and mindsets that I couldn’t blame these men in particular.
Aside from watching Maud grow closer to other women in the movement and develop solidarity in the face of such incredible challenges, I loved the authentic connection Maud’s character had with her son. Achieving this level of intimacy between an adult and a younger counterpart is not easily done; it is a true testament either to Mulligan’s skill in connecting with this young man or his ability to warm up on camera, but this relationship made the film far more believable and heart-breaking for me.
This is not just a movie for people who consider themselves “feminists” as there is a lot to learn here. Ultimately, I would love a film like this (or this) to be shown in partnership with political social justice films like Selma or Milk as a reminder that the fight for equality is A) never over and B) not exclusive to white, cis, heterosexual women.