In the early 20th century, women didn’t have the ability to vote for elected officials in England, and after repeatedly being denied their rights, many decided that they needed to take drastic action. Led by the call of activist Emmeline Pankhurst, women began to commit acts of public disruption – doing everything from throwing stones through windows to setting fires in empty buildings.
Director Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette brings the story of these freedom fighters to the big screen, but the movie also presents an interesting question: were these women actually terrorists? I recently had the opportunity to ask star Carey Mulligan that very question, and while she doesn’t necessarily believe the modern context of the word fits those in the movement, she also recognizes that they put lives in danger as a result of their political actions.
The wonderful actress and star of movies such as Drive and Inside Llewyn Davis was in Los Angeles this past week, and it was during a press day for Suffragette that I was given the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with her on camera. I opened the conversation asking about the way she processed the movie’s approach to the question of whether or not the ends justify the means, and followed up by asking if she thinks it’s going too far to call her character, Maud Watts, a terrorist. She explained,
I think in the modern sense of the word I don’t think you can equate the two, but they did risk life. They set out never to harm human life – nobody apart from themselves – and a couple of suffragettes died, but as a result of forced feeding, not in any of their civil disobedience acts. There was one suffragette, I forget who it was, but she said, ‘We did risk human life, but providence protected us.’ Because it could have wrong, and it didn’t. So I don’t think you can say in a modern day sense that they were terrorists, but there’s definitely colors of that.
You can watch Carey Mulligan's full response in the video below:
Carey Mulligan’s Maud is the fictional central character of Suffragette, portrayed as a young woman who has grown up working in a laundromat and whose one light in life is her young son, George (Adam Michael Dodd). Though she is initially pulled into the women’s right to vote campaign by accident, she eventually finds it become one of the most important things in her life. Unfortunately, it also becomes a serious disruption, as she sees her job and family threatened by her political actions, and a special investigator put on her tail, ready and willing to take her down at any moment.
The actions taken by Emmeline Pankhurst and her followers during the suffragette movement in England are certainly controversial, but to Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan’s credit, it does take into account multiple perspectives. There is no denying the importance of women’s suffrage, and there’s also no questioning that the actions of Pankhurst’s group had a key impact on the issue, but the film also doesn’t shy away from the consequences and criticism of their actions. It’s definitely a well-made movie about a particularly interesting part of history, and an above-average period piece – even for the fall.
Suffragette is in theaters today, October 23rd.