Believe it or not, “Suffragette” is the first feature film out of Britain to focus exclusively on the suffragette movement. What took the country so long? Completed last year, it has finally made it to Japan, and in the light of all that’s happening in Western politics, it couldn’t be coming out at a better time.

Helen Pankhurst, an activist for women’s rights and great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst who led the British suffragettes in the early 1900s, came to Tokyo late last year to promote the film.

“This came out (in the U.K.) just when Saudi Arabian women got the vote for the first time in their country’s history. That was a pivotal moment for the filmmakers and myself,” she said. “And now it’s coming out here, just as Donald Trump becomes the new American president, another pivotal moment.”

Suffragette (Mirai o Hanataba ni Shite)
Run Time 106 mins
Language English
Opens jan. 27

As a story about social oppression and political activism, “Suffragette” is surprisingly restrained and understated. Pankhurst explained that it reflects the way things were during the early 20th century — “a long battle” mostly about “endurance, and patience.”

The result is a movie that Pankhurst explained doesn’t simply glorify the triumph of the movement, but honors its battle by including “the day-to-day struggles of women who, after marching the streets for their rights, went home to do chores and take care of their families.”

This is much more than a film about women demanding to vote; it’s about women’s struggle to be heard and taken seriously, most notably in the workplace as well as in their own homes.

Directed by Sarah Gavron, “Suffragette” is an often-bleak account of what it was like for ordinary English women in 1912 , 16 years before enfranchisement, and two years before the outbreak of World War I, when the movement had to be put on hold. At this point in time, women who wanted to vote were openly ridiculed (frequently by other women) and beaten or thrown in prison if they were caught agitating for political change. Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) is the godmother of the suffragettes, and when she shows up for speeches and rallies, the effect she has on her followers is electrifying.

One of the crowd is Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a fictional character who represents the masses of working-class women who dragged their tired bodies to demonstrations after toiling 12 hours or more in factories and shops. At 24, Maud has been working since a child as a laundress, putting up with harassment, sexual abuse and atrocious working conditions. Still, she considers herself one of the lucky ones — she’s healthy, her husband (Ben Whishaw) doesn’t mistreat her and they’re raising an adorable young son. But one day Maud accompanies a co-worker (Anne-Marie Duff) to a suffragette meeting and discovers for the first time in her life that maybe there’s a chance of changing her fate.

Maud’s awakening is the crux of “Suffragette.” Her realization that being a woman doesn’t have to mean subjugation and silence propels the narrative, and Mulligan delivers a powerhouse performance. Everything about Maud — from her unkempt strands of hair and the tiredness in her eyes to the defiance that rises inside her like an ocean storm — speaks for generations of women who, like her, listened to what men told them to do, while longing to speak out and get some control over their lives.

At first Maud is content with attending secret meetings in the back room of a pharmacy run by prominent suffragette Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), but she’s quickly inspired to assertive action (blowing up buildings, vandalism, hunger strikes) because she’s convinced that nothing will change otherwise.

Intriguingly, Bonham Carter is the great-granddaughter of Lord Asquith, who was prime minister at the time this film is set, and who sought to quash the suffragettes with everything he had. From online accounts, Bonham Carter relished her part in bringing the movement to the screen, as well as looking into her forefather’s career. There’s much to think and ponder over in “Suffragette” — a thoroughly valuable experience for everyone, not just women.

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