At the turn of the Twentieth Century there were four great issues of policy: home rule, free trade, the welfare state and votes for women. And this is the one that the Liberal Party got wrong.
Liberals in government do better these days, from Lynne Featherstone championing equalities and taking a stand against FGM to Vince Cable pressing for women's representation in the board room. The election catastrophe tends to disguise that in seven out of eight seats where a man was retiring we stood a woman to replace him. But the arguments for equal representation, for and against women only shortlists and how women are treated and represented within the Party continue to this day. So this is a timely reminder that we could still do better.
"Suffragette", directed by Sarah Gavron, written by Abi Morgan and staring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne-Marie Duff, does not focus too heavily on the political angle – Lloyd George appears briefly, early on, seemingly sympathetic but then letting the women down – instead following the human bravery of some of the women who in spite of a system already grinding them down with labour and unfairness, stood up for the right to be treated equally. The film never dwells on violence but nor does it shy away from the beatings, police assault and force-feeding which we know to be part of the story.
The "enemy" is not so much a government that fails to do the obviously right, but a more general patriarchal establishment that sees men have the upper hand at all levels of society, whether it's in the Home Office where the minister implicitly equates the women to the "Fenian terrorists"; at work, where the odious boss exercises his droit du seigneur; or in the home where a husband expects to get paid more, do less to take care of his child and above all not to be embarrassed in front of the community.
As Maud, an everywoman character, Carey Mulligan progresses from onlooker to sympathiser to supporter to activist, often because she's just the "one who is there", in little steps that will be familiar to anyone, woman or man, who has been encouraged into politics. While who cannot have sympathy for Anne-Marie Duff's character Violet for whom the compromises of real life get in the way of her idealism?
For the men, Brendan Gleeson plays the police inspector who eventually disgusts even himself with the lengths he goes to to silence the women's protest. And Ben Wishaw plays Maud's husband whose cruelty and complicity are shown to be born out of his weakness.
For an historical drama, much remains highly topical: from the way the police discuss surveillance techniques with the new compact cameras (hilariously not compact); to the way that Meryl Streep's Mrs Pankhust is smuggled in and out of public meetings like a corseted Julian Assange or Edward Snowden; to the way that casual abuse of women for voicing an opinion remains normalised from the slums to the Twittersphere.
If you want a shot of Downton-era costume drama without the twee complacency and deceptive nostalgia, then this is the film for you. Or if you want a thriller with gadgets, explosions and Ben Wishaw, then see this before you see SPECTRE.