The first feature film I can remember dealing with the fight for women's voting rights in the United Kingdom, puts its subject across respectfully, if carefully. Most of the major events I've read about historically on the movement's road to enfranchisement are covered in the film, like the letterbox campaign, attack on Lloyd George's house, their hunger strike and resultant force-feeding in prison and most famously the shocking martyrdom of Emily Davidson who ran onto Epsom racecourse on Derby Day in front of the King's horse, the latter very realistically.
The device used by the writer and director to get the viewer close to the action is through the invented Carey Mulligan character Maud Watts, a young factory worker, docilely married to her husband and the doting mother of their infant son, who develops an interest in the suffragette movement through a work colleague. Stepping in for the latter at an important consultation with a UK Government committee on votes for women, she finds herself, initially unwillingly, drawn into activism on behalf of the cause.
I did feel the film somewhat overdid her travails and some of the coincidental events in her life. We learn indirectly that her male employer has abused her at work since she was a child and is now doing so to another pre-teen girl at the factory. Her husband doesn't understand her new found politicism and in short order expels her from their house, denies her access to her son and eventually has him adopted without her knowledge. She too is the one accompanying Davidson to the Derby. While I laud the equally important political point of maternal rights to their children in the event of marital separation being argued along with voter's rights, I did feel that the world seemed to revolve too much around Mulligan's character. She thus comes across more as a cipher than a real person and the film might have played better if she had been based on a real person.
I also felt the sub-plot about the child-molesting boss jarred somewhat and belonged in a different film entirely, the two main causes didn't need this extra justification, heinous as the crimes are. While I'm criticising, I also felt the cliff-hanging direction style employed (especially in the build-up to the Derby climax) was overdone with looming orchestral swells in the background and a virtual countdown to the incident itself, to be somewhat inconsistent with the seriousness of the subject matter.
The acting is good by most of the leads, Mulligan in particular. Quite why they rolled out the barrel to find a place in the cast for Meryl Streep to deliver a brief but showy cameo as the cause's figurehead Emmeline Pankhurst, I don't know. Nevertheless in its gritty depiction of the privations and struggles of the brave women who challenged the male-dominated political landscape of the day, this film deserves admiration and recognition for its subject matter if not quite for its execution.
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