Suffragette: Review

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Image Courtesy of Focus Features
Image courtesy of Focus Features

“The time is now”. So proclaimed the posters and trailers for Suffragette, Sarah Gavron’s new film about the titular British votes-for-women activists who gained notoriety in the early 20th century through civil disobedience. Or should that be, “finally, the time is now”. Over a century after the events it depicts, at long last a screen portrayal of the British female suffrage movement with a cast and budget worthy of its historical significance has come into being (both written and directed by women too).

Rather than a direct portrayal of real life events and figures, the film enters the movement through the perspective of composite character Maud Watts, a fictional East End laundress (Carey Mulligan). Angered by the injustices in her life and the lives of the women around her, Maud eventually becomes a full-on militant devotee to the cause. Her eventful journey brings her into contact with various aspects of the suffragette crusade pre-1914, and thus weaves us in and out of the action of the time too.

This decision is where the film, in several ways, falls short. Screenwriter Abi Morgan’s attempt to pack such a considerable amount of incident into the script is admirable (and proves more deft than the potential efforts of a less talented writer), but a slightly formulaic tone pervades. One wonders how likely it is that a neophyte like Maud could manage to become a key speaker in the testimony of working women to Parliament; one of the perpetrators of the bombing of David Lloyd George’s country house; witness to an illegal speech by WSPU leader Emmeline Pankhurst and front-row onlooker to the ‘martyrdom’ of Emily Wilding Davison at Derby Day 1913.

Despite this historical box-ticking, the depiction of the suffrage movement as a whole is worryingly selective. It barely hints on how fractious and rife with infighting the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union – the suffragettes’ official organisation) really was, especially regarding the often dictatorial stance of Pankhurst herself, and omits any portrayal of the alternative, non-violent suffragist movement. To the uneducated viewer, the film suggests that Davison’s apparent suicide (another point of debate) in front of the King’s horse was the key catalyst for women gaining the vote. Yet it ends before any mention of the looming First World War, during which all official suffragette activity was suspended – a development which, rather problematically for the film’s agenda, may have been the real turn of the tide for British female enfranchisement.

However, Suffragette is by no means a failure; in many ways it is accomplished, not least in the efforts of its cast. The weaknesses of the composite character technique are generally balanced out by strong performances by Mulligan; Helena Bonham Carter as doctor and devoted militant Edith Ellyn; and particularly Anne-Marie Duff as fellow washerwoman, Violet. Duff is equally endearing as both an initially buoyant, enthusiastic suffragette and later downtrodden in her disillusionment with the cause. For all her heavy featuring in the film’s promotion, Meryl Streep’s appearance as Pankhurst is very brief, but nonetheless stirring (aside from the ill-judged “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” line).

Less subtly drawn is the triad of key male characters: Ben Whishaw, in a rare antagonistic outing as Maud’s unsupportive husband Sonny (whose idea of a decent attempt at single fatherhood evidently constitutes about a week); Geoff Bell as The Devil in the guise of a laundry foreman Mr. Taylor; and finally Brendan Gleeson’s Inspector Steed. Steed, the film’s representative of the police pursuit and suppression of the suffragettes, comes closest to a nuanced criticism of the WSPU’s actions and motives, but his opinions are never dealt with below the surface.

Gavron and Morgan manage to bring to the fore something not often discussed with regard to the suffragettes: namely, the social and personal cost of activism.

Nevertheless, the film’s main success is its firm grounding in the lives of working-class women, the so-called ‘foot-soldiers’ of the fight, and the grubbiness and danger which pervade their living and working conditions. From this, Gavron and Morgan manage to bring to the fore something not often discussed with regard to the suffragettes: namely, the social and personal cost of activism. Living in a country and culture in which free speech is a given and discrimination of all kinds is generally riled against, it’s difficult to imagine the act of protest resulting in your life crumbling around you. Maud’s unwillingness to abandon the cause engenders a sacrifice of the life she had before, and the loss of her home – and more importantly, her son. These are as emotionally wrenching as the violent scenes of police brutality and prison force-feeding; these scenes are physically jarring.

One last note: at the screening where I saw the film, a trailer was shown for He Named me Malala, the recently-released documentary on Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai. This formed something of a bookend with the rolling list of countries and corresponding dates of female enfranchisement which rounds off Suffragette, ending with the revelation that Saudi Arabian women have only been promised voting rights this year. As noble a production as Suffragette is, it can be difficult to pin an audience’s sympathies on the film’s characters if that audience is at all educated about the position of women in the wider world a hundred years later. Sadly, the time is, indeed, now.

 

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