A quick few notes on this colorful, vibrant portrait of a human rights struggle in the costume of the valiant battle waged in London for women's suffrage. First of all, turn-of-the-century (19th-20th) women did work for a living--in hardly liberating roles, however. The heroine, Maud Watts (played by Carey Mulligan) works in a sweatshop under unspeakable conditions. Standing in Parliament to speak in a most-unaccustomed role before MP David Lloyd George, because the chosen speaker is too beaten up and bruised--I think it would have been excellent for her to remain the speaker in that condition--she points out to his liberal excellency that her life expectancy isn't long even though at age 24 she's received two promotions. (average life expectancy for women in England in 1900 was 48--45 for men, but subtract from that figure for women who worked in sweatshops).
When appearing before Lloyd George doesn't work, a few ladies aim higher, to King Edward VII when the annual derby is held. Disguised several notches higher than their economic echelon, two ladies attend with large banners they want to wave before the king, but lose this chance and one of them takes the step that usually brings results--martyrdom. She throws herself on the racetrack in the path of a galloping steed, the climax of the film.
Thousands of people line both sides of the street for the funeral. The suffragettes have made it to prime time, though it takes a while for them to gain the vote.
Maud's husband Sonny disowns her when she commits herself to the crusade and by law he has custody and gives up their son for adoption. Other forms of more overt sexism are apparent, but one can't help but compare the British police, who discipline without guns, wounding without coming close to killing, with ours in the US of A these days--the suffragettes are shown to be more violent than the bobbies actually, planting explosives in mailboxes and throwing rocks at store windows, but it is made clear that factions develop between this form of guerrilla warfare as opposed to nonviolence pursuit of the vote. Maud is a guerrilla but the ultimate violence is her colleague's exquisite martyrdom at the racetrack.
Meryl Streep is a stunning cameo as the movement's leader Emmeline Pankhurst, who would certainly have stolen the show had she been given more footage. That's probably why she appears fleetingly only once or twice, her British accent flawless, her charisma reaching out from the screen as does nothing else in the film. It's clear that the Academy is sick of her running away with all the Oscars--and there's none so far for a cameo.
One New York Times reviewer writes that "Suffragette" doesn't have the grandeur and force of "Selma," "but it is also stirring and cleareyed -- the best kind of history lesson."
As I said, "Suffragette" is about every human rights movement. Compared with voting rights, one current impasse, however, the difference is that 99 percent of this country stand to lose their right to vote: men, women, minorities, youth, felons, and many more.
Has anyone died this time? Back in the sixties, certainly, but in the latest round of abuses, beginning in 2000 and blossoming day by day now, one wonders whether anyone's violent death would make a difference. The gun rights lobby certainly doesn't care about the massive carnage their weapon of choice is wielding these days.
What's dying is democracy.
Where is the arc of justice bending this time around? MLK became discouraged toward the end of his life.
But voting rights movements have been the theme of two major films this year--a positive development that, I believe, won't help this latest round of suffrage rights advocacy at all.