On Movies: 'Suffragette' star looks back in anger

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Carey Mulligan plays a laundry worker who joins a group of female activists fighting, literally, for voting rights. Her role in "Suffragette" is based on real experiences of the suffrage movement.

Wives and mothers beaten by police on Parliament Square.

Seamstresses and shop workers carted off to jail.

Women, wealthy and working-class alike, condemned by the government and made mockery of in the press for simply insisting they deserved the right to vote.

"These things all really did happen," Carey Mulligan is saying, as though, even now, a century after the events depicted in Suffragette, she senses there still are disbelievers out there.

Set in London in the years before World War I, Suffragette - playing now at the Ritz Five - follows Mulligan's Maud Watts, a laundry worker, a wife, a mother, who experiences a political awakening and becomes part of a group of female activists fighting, quite literally, for the chance to cast a vote. One day she's pressing linens and being pressed up against by her lecherous boss, the next she's attending secret meetings to plot acts of arson and revolt.

"It seems so outrageous that women should be born into a life like that," says Mulligan, on the phone from London ("a sunny, not-too-Englandy day"), keen to discuss the film written by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, The Hour) and directed by Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane). Although Mulligan's character is fictional, the role is based on the experiences of a number of real women swept up in the suffrage movement in early 20th-century Britain.

"There were accounts of women who went through this exact same journey," the actress reports. "There was an extraordinary amount of abuse in the workplace, and a lot of women did lose their children, and their husbands, and everything that they had when they joined the suffrage movement. In fact, there were a couple of suffragettes - more than a couple - who were committed to mental institutions by their husbands when they became suffragettes.

"It seems like a disastrous journey that Maud goes on, but it was the reality for a lot of women. I found that so shocking."

Also shocking, says Mulligan, is that the stories in Suffragette have taken so long to make it to the screen. One of the pivotal events in the film - and in the history of the movement - took place on June 4, 1913, when Emily Wilding Davison, a governess and teacher turned militant, stepped in front of King George's horse, racing at the Epsom Derby. Her death, a few days later from the injuries she sustained, was deemed a suicide, and Davison became a martyr to the cause. The event was captured by the earliest newsreel cameras and shown in theaters around the world - it was no longer possible for British politicians and newspaper editors to ignore what was happening. Actress Natalie Press plays Davison. Another key historical figure in Suffragette is Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women's Social and Political Union. The feminist firebrand is brought to rallying-the-troops life by none other than Meryl Streep.

"A woman threw herself in front of a horse 100 years ago at the King's Derby and that was the first piece of news footage that went around the world," Mulligan says. "And no one's ever made a film about that, not a film about Emily Wilding Davison, nor, until now, a film about the entire suffrage movement - any part of it, really, at all."

And Mulligan, the actress nominated for an Academy Award for her role in 2009's An Education, blames that on the film industry - an industry still run, in large part, by men.

"There's no way, if you could somehow translate all of these events into a male story, that it wouldn't already have been told countless times by now. . . . But that's the way that the industry works - or doesn't work - in so far as women's stories are concerned."

Mulligan says Alison Owen, one of Suffragette's producers, told her that when she was pitching the project, studio execs and financiers were far more receptive to the idea of "a film about the peaceful, tea-drinking, Mary Poppins side of the movement," rather than a tale of the brick-throwing, fire-starting radicals who are credited with bringing about real change.

"I find that so bizarre," Mulligan says with a laugh. "Because the militants' story is by far the more interesting, cinematically. You know, people blowing up buildings and being put in prison - that's what you would imagine an audience would be keen to see. But there was a real push against that."

Nonetheless, the movie that producer Owen, screenwriter Morgan, and director Gavron wanted to make finally did get the green light, and Mulligan was eager to climb aboard.

"Maud starts the story as such an ordinary woman and she becomes extraordinary," Mulligan says about her character. "That's a really exciting kind of journey to try and tell."

Mulligan had the lead role in the adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, released in the spring. She also recently prowled the London and New York stages in a revival of David Hare's Skylight, landing a best actress Tony nomination. She is married to Marcus Mumford, lead singer of Mumford & Sons; the pair worked together on the Coen brothers' folk-era gem, Inside Llewyn Davis. The couple have an infant daughter, and Mulligan says there are no immediate plans for her to return to work.

"I'm taking some time off," she declares, sounding happy about it. "I did Suffragette, Far From the Madding Crowd, and Skylight in London and then Skylight in New York all in one span, so I'm thinking of not doing anything for a while."

But she isn't ready, quite, to stop thinking about Suffragette.

"Around the world, today, right now, there are so many places that tend to be, for women, pretty much exactly the same as they were for women 100 years ago in Edwardian Britain," she says. "We've come a long way, but in a lot of ways we haven't. We're still facing massive inequality in education for women, and domestic violence and sexual violence against women. And even here in the U.K., the representation by women in Parliament is still ridiculously unbalanced.

"That's what I like about the film as well, that it does try and bring you back around to the present day at the end. It's not just a historic drama about a certain time, it tries to say something about where we are today."

srea@phillynews.com

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