July 20, 2019


Heroines of Democracy

3 popcorns

3 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

Special to the Observer


When historical films like director Sarah Gavron’s “Suffragette” so movingly inform how brutally primitive we were not so long ago, it is decidedly chilling. Hardly more than a hundred years ago, so-called enlightened civilizations were beating up women because they wanted to vote…to represent themselves within the society where they nurtured, toiled and died. It gives me pause to wonder just how aghast future cultures may be when they study how “barbaric” we 21st Century folk were. I.e. – ‘Imagine. They made people pay for health care, food, and energy.’

In that light, it’s crazy to think that once upon a time half the Earth’s population thought it quite o.k. to disenfranchise the other half…didn’t feel guilty about it at all. Loonier yet, though they mightn’t admit it except in the company of like minds, lots of people today would be glad to see a reversion to less progressive times. It’s nutty when you consider that our species’ very survival was predicated on us becoming gregarious beings and working in consort to make the world safe for humans. Now, having arrived, many of the haves aren’t sure they want to help the have-nots.


Thus, the searing tale that “Suffragette” tells is not only instructive, but a striking reminder that such evils and ignorance, unchecked, can quickly drag us back to the primeval muck. This is pretty tough stuff, the movie’s fine performances hammering home its social importance and high-minded values.


As such, the panoply of relentless inhumane treatment unleashed on the heroines of the suffragette movement in England, circa early 20th Century, can get a bit beleaguering. I mean, these are normal folk, like your Mom, aunt Bertha or cousin Vera, treated like vermin. Equally flummoxing, as disgraceful as the depictions are, the film is only PG-13. Hmm. Check me if I’m wrong, but perhaps it’s telling that, even now, the suffering shown isn’t considered as egregious as those dirty words that earn a film its R rating.


Embodying the movement to free women from their existence as little more than serfs, Carey Mulligan exudes award-worthy skill as Maud Watts, a laundress, wife and mother who, not too unlike Sally Fields’s “Norma Rae” (1979), awakens to the realities of her ostensible servitude. The transition is slow. She’s not a firebrand. But she thinks maybe there’s a better way. Those powers that be have the gal locked into a vicious circle of poverty. Complain and the sweatshop boss, who has doubtlessly had his way with Maud since her childhood labor days, will fire her.


Added to this societal disease that afflicts and demeans our protagonist, there is a more shameful treachery afoot, an adversary within her own home. Sonny (Ben Whisaw), her husband who also works in the laundry, is hog-tied to accept this dreadfulness, not only for economic reasons, but because he’s been raised to believe that this is the way it is. In short, he knows his place. To attempt change would be improper and to invite ostracization. Never mind that they live in a hovel, barely above subsistence level. When their little son Georgie coughs, we fear the worst.


Dank and dim London landscapes serve as the backdrop for Maud’s gradual epiphany. A band of women, no more remarkable than she, march down the street proclaiming their equality. The police attack them. In another incident, attempting to bring attention to their cause, the ladies launch rocks at store windows. But if there’s a turning point in Maud’s outlook, it comes when a co-worker, scheduled to tell the plight of women before Parliament, is deemed too beat-up to appear. Unprepared and reluctant, but bravely substituting, Maud is suddenly a suffragette.


Without going into the ghastly details, suffice it to note that all the potential trepidations that could keep someone from fighting for their basic human rights evolve into terrible realities for the title character. The near medieval horror of it is unremittingly heartwrenching. We can’t help but scratch our heads and mull, ‘Only a hundred years ago…only a hundred years ago.’ Heck, witnessing this, viewers who’ve long abandoned their right to the ballot box may suddenly rejoin society and vote, even if only out of respect for these martyrs of democracy.


Bearing the social equivalent of the scarlet letter, Maud gives good old Job a run for his money. She’s all in now, and it isn’t much fun witnessing her and her comrades’ travails. So beware: The film is much more informing and educative than entertaining in the usually accepted sense of the term. It is civics class-worthy. As such, if seen it should be for all the good and noble reasons that one reads history. Solid and responsible production standards tell it like it was, with no embellishment needed to earn “Suffragette” our vote of approval.

“Suffragette,” rated PG-13, is a Focus Features release directed by Sarah Gavron and stars Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne-Marie Duff. Running time: 106 minutes


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