Review by Jane Freebury
As arguments for human rights go, this is in its quiet way a powerful one. All the more for the way it draws us into the life of a laundress (Carey Mulligan) with lots to lose when she joins the activists in London demanding suffrage for women in 1912.
Hard to credit that a hundred short years ago, few countries besides Australia and New Zealand had given women the vote. Until the list of dates for women’s suffrage scroll by country at the end of the film show how slow the emancipation process has been.
Why would someone like Maud Watts (Mulligan) join the women demonstrating in the streets? Risk a beating at the hands of truncheon-wielding police, risk losing her job at the laundry, and being cast out of home? The explanation provided by screenwriter Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady) is that her path to activism is an accident, getting caught up in a suffragette demonstration and then filling in at the last minute for a friend and laundry colleague making a submission to a parliamentary inquiry about health and safety conditions at work.
Maud tells the inquiry that she hopes there is a chance to live a better life and not have to follow in the footsteps of her mother who worked at the same laundry and died young. Women of her class who spoke up and demonstrated risked far more than their establishment sisters like Meryl Streep’s Emmeline Pankhurst who makes a brief appearance on a balcony to deliver a rousing speech. Once Maud has spoken up, there’s no way back.
Although the film doesn’t say as much, the burgeoning suffragette movement that has attracted the interest of police and security forces – personified in Brendan Gleeson as Inspector Steed – isn’t the only source of civil unrest at this time. There were anarchists, communists and other political activists making their presence felt. Yet in such turbulent times the violence inflicted on the demonstrating women is genuinely disturbing. Another jolt is the developing-world workplace conditions were the lot of Britain’s working classes a short while ago too.
Tight and intimate framing pitches us into things from the start as the hand-held camera weaves around the characters, creating an immediacy and involvement that would have been technologically impossible, a century before you could just whip out your mobile phone to capture vision for the news. Eduard Grau’s camera draws you in with subtle purpose.
Maud is one of those fictional characters intended to bear witness to events, and Mulligan’s interpretation a delicate and determined portrayal. I didn’t think the actress was right for Far From the Madding Crowd but she is perfect here.
Maud is not as brusque as Helena Bonham-Carter’s, a chemist busily involved in ‘deeds, not words’, but still strong. No hint of suffragette leanings, nothing much bolshie about Maud at the laundry where the lecherous boss (Geoff Bell) prowls the women for sport, or at the home with her gentle but sulky husband and co-worker (Ben Whishaw) and beloved young son.
Director Sarah Gavron has pitched her period drama at a slightly less strident level than one might reasonably expect, compared say to stories about other heroes of the civil rights movements. However, she has still managed to create something powerful. And still relevant.