Thursday, November 5, 2015

When British women fought for the vote

A slice of history that shouldn't be forgotten.
Currently, two women (one in each major party) are trying to become president of the United States.

Britain already has had a woman prime minister, and many other countries -- Germany, of course -- have elevated women to their top power positions.

This is not to say that every vestige of gender inequality has been wrung from a still-patriarchal world, but to point out that it wasn't so long ago that the political arena belonged exclusively to men.

Suffragette, a straightforward period piece about the struggle by British women to gain the vote, returns us to a time when women were denied one of the most basic of democratic rights.

Suffragette focuses on one woman's political awakening. She's 24-year-old Maud Watts, played with nuanced intensity by Carey Mulligan.

As the movie develops, Maude must risk everything -- her husband (Ben Whishaw) and her young son (Adam Michael Dodd) -- to push for a cause she deems essential if women are to have a voice in how British society evolves.

Whishaw's character loves his wife, but acquiesces in the way that women are abused at the laundry where Maud works, also his place of employment.

Watts' involvement in an increasingly militant movement begins when she joins a co-worker (Anne-Marie Duff) at a meeting. Pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) serves as the main organizer, a woman who's eventually driven to extremes to accomplish her goal.

Before Suffragette concludes, some of its women will have resorted to violence: Not surprisingly members of the movement engage in a familiar-sounding debate about how far they are justified in going to advance their cause.

Director Sarah Gavron, working from a screenplay by Abi Morgan, does her best work in scenes that show how the movie's women are subjugated. They are sexually harassed and demeaned in the workplace. And they find little support from male co-workers.

The film takes place in 1912, some 16 years before British women were granted full voting rights.

When we meet the movie's women, the battle for the vote had been going on for some time, led by figures such as Emmeline Pankhurst, portrayed in a cameo by Meryl Streep.

Streep's brief appearance comes off as an attempt at prestige grabbling. It's a way of nodding at history rather than exploring it.

It falls to a character named Steed (Brendan Gleeson) to represent the male opposition. A Scotland Yard detective, Steed tries to convince women they'd be better off if they simply went home and tended to their domestic lives. He also arrests them, and clearly stands as a staunch defender of the current order.

Suffragette attempts to turn itself into a clarion call for activism in a battle that remains unfinished, but the movie's real value has to do with the urgency of many of its performances and with the way in which it reminds us that some of the things we take for granted only resulted from hard-fought and costly battles.

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