Maud (Carey Mulligan) is leading an impoverished life in the East End of London in 1912. She works in an industrial laundry where noxious fumes and scalding water ensure daily accidents. Her boss harasses the young girls and the pay is a pittance. She’s married to fellow worker Sonny and they have a son George, named after the king.
When Maud is sent out to deliver a parcel in the West End she is shocked to witness suffragettes smashing the windows of department stores and even more so when she spots her colleague Violet among them.
Back at work Violet convinces a reluctant Maud to join the suffragettes and go with her to parliament to give testimony to cabinet minister Lloyd George. He appears visibly moved by her account of their working conditions.
Maud cannot believe it when three months later she waits outside parliament only to learn that the law to grant women the vote has not been passed. The crowd protest and the police move in and brutally beat back and arrest many of them, including Maud.
Released a week later, she promises her unsympathetic husband that she will distance herself from the movement but she soon joins Violet at a secret gathering to listen to suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst’s call for militant action (Meryl Streep’s much heralded 3-minute balcony appearance). Maud is once again picked up by the police. A furious Sonny throws her out of the house.
Maud is now homeless, jobless, has lost her family and is up in court for attacking her boss. She embarks on an arson campaign, which results in her being imprisoned once again and having to endure being force-feeding.
There is so much wrong with this film. Maud, the film-makers say, serves as a “composite suffragette” but few working class factory women could afford to be a Maud.
Emmeline’s daughter Sylvia said in this period, “Working class women haven’t got time to play the game; they’re too busy struggling to live. What is wanted is not militancy by the few but a stronger appeal to the masses to join the struggle.” Sylvia gets a two-second mention in the film.
Unintentionally I am sure, Maud serves as a good example of why Sylvia became uneasy about the violent militancy of individuals that her mother advocated and she did indeed go to the East End to build a wider movement among working class women.
Neither Mulligan nor Streep, whose acting skills are more than serviceable, can save this film. The dialogue is clunky as is the non-stop melodrama that befalls one person. It is a film which has ducked taking on the really interesting and important achievements of the suffragettes and the contradictions that lay within the movement.