Suffragette

Suffragette

UK (2015) Dir. Sarah Gavron

I am dreading the reception of this review especially from female readers, as I am sure any negative or contrary opinion I may voice will incur the reaction “You’re a man, of course you’d think that way”!

Suffragette presents a snapshot of early 20th century Britain when women fought to gain the vote, under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep). While Pankhurst herself remains in hiding to avoid prison, her loyal suffragettes continue their campaign against the government.

Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is a 24 year-old laundry worker who witnesses a violent protest in the streets, noticing one of the perpetrators is her co-worker Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff). Violet invites Maud to join her as she speaks before the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller) to plead her case for women’s right to vote.

Having been beaten up the night before, Violet pulls out at the last minute, so Maud takes her place and impresses the committee. When the decision against the women is announced a few days later Maud is present and is arrested when the women protest. This infamy puts Maud at odds with her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) but strengthens her resolve to become more active with the Suffragettes.

It’s a potent but saddening and frustrating story being told here and Sarah Gavron does present a good case as to why the Suffragettes deserve our support in this fight, but it feels a little myopic and while not outright misandry, there is a pervasive aura of intent to paint all men as brutal, obstructive, self-righteous and parochial monsters. Then again, I’m a man, of course I’d think that way.

The truth is I do heartily sympathise with the cause of the women in this film and it did galvanise my feelings into one of fury towards the draconian and oppressive of the British (Liberal!) government of the 1910’s. A film dramatisation of this struggle is long overdue, if only to make modern audiences aware of how far we have come over the past century.

But it is a dramatisation and with that comes certain caveats in how this is received, my own personal concern raised above. Gavron states this was heavily researched, in which case she would have learned the men of this period also fought their own suffrage as not all men had the vote either – it was only for those of a higher status and with property to their name, something which changed with the eventual 1918 reforms.  

Of course the social mores and relationships of the era put the man first, and no doubt some of the disgusting actions demonstrated here, such as the laundry boss Mr. Taylor (Geoff Bell) abusing his female staff – Maud included – were commonplace. Even hubby Sonny is a close minded pig with whom the law sides over custody of their son George (Adam Michael Dodd), pushing Maud further towards her new Suffragette family.

Joining Maud and Violet on this campaign are Pankhurst confidante Emily Davison (Natalie Press) and pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham-Carter), a character who, like Maud, is a fictional composite of many real life suffragettes. In a wonderful twist of irony, Bonham-Carter is the great-granddaughter of H. H. Asquith, the Prime Minister of the era against whom the Suffragettes fought!

Through modern enlightened eyes the violent treatment of the women by the police will draw feelings of fury and outrage and justifiably so, but at the time this was unfortunately the mentality, something the script constantly reminds us. “Keep your woman under control” Sonny is told when Maud makes the headlines; “No-one will listen a woman” Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson) tells Maud during their many run ins.

It’s an equally sad state of affairs that Pankhurst encouraged violence and disruption to antagonise the Government to be heard, painting them in a bad light but as Maud told Steed “War is the only language men will listen to.” Because of this, when Pankhurst makes her brief appearance in this film she comes across as a demagogue than a freedom fighter, her bellicose language contrasting her desire for dignity and respect.

The film concludes with the infamous death of Emily Davison at the Epsom Derby where she collided with the King’s horse and died later from her severe injuries. Gavron depicts this as a suicidal act of martyrdom but recent revelations suggest Davison was trying to attach the Suffragette flag to the horse. Either way, it is one of most powerful moments of the whole film.

Very much a historical period drama that takes great care in replicating the bygone with due deference and attention, the filming style is very modern. Gavron uses hand held cameras to capture intrusive and intimate shots, the physicality of the protest scuffles are jittery and chaotic affairs, while introspective and sobering moments are given extra depth through the use of light and shade.

Gavron plays a smart hand with a superb cast, with Carey Mulligan cementing her status as one of Britain’s most prominent modern acting talents. She essays Maud’s rise from mere observer to card carrying anarchist with a commanding performance full of heart and nuance. Helena Bonham-Carter has matured nicely from former English rose to mature stateswoman and Anne-Marie Duff adds energy as the chirpy cockney firebrand.

A huge misnomer however is Meryl Streep’s contribution to the film being nowhere near commensurate to her presence in the promotional stakes. For just two minutes screen time they could have got a legendary British actress to play Pankhurst instead, who wouldn’t have needed to adopt such a forced faux English accent to boot.

The story being told in Suffragette needs to be told and perhaps it should have made a deeper point that the struggle for women in society is far from over. It will divide opinion, its factual credibility will be challenged which is par for the course, but overall, this is a very sincere and earnest outing.

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8 thoughts on “Suffragette

    1. Thanks! It could have been a bit more than it was but the director was more interested in demonising men than focusing on the political struggle. :\

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  1. That sounds like an interesting film. While reading about the suffragette movement in the UK, I was shocked by the level of violence the suffragettes resorted to. They were pretty much terrorists, and I’m surprised the British government eventually caved to their demands. Though women deserved more rights than they had, there are proper ways of persuading one’s fellow citizens without resorting to riots, bombs, and arson! The film seems to try to cover both the just motivations of the suffragettes and some of their more extreme activity.

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    1. I was resistant to using the word “terrorists” but you are right, their actions were tantamount to earning that description.

      Then again this was 1912 and a patriarchal society so they basically tried to get the male attention in the same manner men would. Obviously today women can use social media and the such to get attention, a luxury they didn’t have back then.

      The men are to blame though as the demands were simple – treat women as equals and give them the vote. As the film shows, calm words didn’t work so they upped their game and spoke louder through actions.

      As it transpires Emmmeline Pankhurst was quite the aggressor and served many jail terms for her actions. She was so extreme even her daughters and sisters quit the group because they felt she was going too far. Emily Davison also was known for going into business for herself on that front, yet it was her death that was the catalyst for the change she fought for to actually happen.

      Like I said, empathising with their case is not a problem, justifying or condoning the violence is.

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      1. But, one can’t just blame men for women being denied suffrage: the also existed a Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, which argued that women already had a lot of social influence and the right to vote in local government elections. They felt that women’s sphere was in culture, the home, and education, and that women has more moral authority by not being attached to national political parties. For example, even without the right to vote in the US, women played a huge role in the success of the temperance movement. And, I’m sure British history shows examples of women successfully championing laws without the right to vote.

        But, it is an interesting question whether increasing women’s political power has reduced or increased their influence on society and their sex’s prestige.

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      2. The film does show that Suffragettes were scorned by both genders. The women who didn’t join the cause were either older, well off or simply were too afraid/uninterested in rocking the boat. A few women in high positions, such as one MPs wife, did get involved but they were soon shut down by their husbands.

        I think the film goes a little too far in portraying most of the men as possessive and bullying ogres but as I said above, this was a period of the patriarchal society in Britain and women where expected to cook, clean, breed, hold down a job and obey their husbands. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch for any woman to wonder if there is more to life than this – to be heard, to be seen, to matter.

        You also need to look at the people behind the Anti-Suffrage League – mostly financially independent women, wives of prominent male figures and those from literary or wealthy families. Their intellectual and elevated social statuses alone separated them from the largely working class membership of the Suffragettes, and as people of privilege they presumably feared this to be some sort of potential peasant’s uprising.

        In other words, wealthy or kept women are happy for the men to sort out the problems of the world just as long they don’t have to and they have a nice house to hide away in while they do it!

        I’m not familiar with the Temperance movement so I can’t comment on it but I assuming women at least had some say in the matter – this was hardly the case in this instance for British women. They had few rights, few liberties and hardly any public voice outside of literature so of course there would be unrest about this.

        The gulf between men and women in society has closed dramatically over the past century but some areas are still in need of improvement. Attitudes have changed and the rewards are there if one is open minded enough to accept them. Some stigmas towards women remain in the arts, sports and the workplace still here in the west while other areas the oppression remains; some may never change in my lifetime but aside from Thatcher as our PM I don’t think giving women a chance has proven to be a bad thing. 😉

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  2. I don’t think it’s really right to condemn the Suffragettes for their riotous actions. They had been campaigning peacefully for over a century and getting absolutely nowhere. The majority of men, especially those in power, completely ignored them. There were two groups though – the Suffragettes who were more riotous, and the suffragists who were more peaceful. Some women were in both groups, others in just one, and some disagreed with the way the other group tried to campaign. They had to resort to extremes to get the attention. It is only when WWI broke out and women were out helping the cause whilst the men were out fighting that they were given the attention they deserved and we’re eventually given the right to vote (but at first of course only to women over 30 I think it was, that owned property – not many women!). Whether the vote was granted because of their efforts during the war, or their campaigning which brought attention to their cause, or perhaps a bit of both, is up for debate. It is important though to understand why they resorted to arson and riots and smashing windows etc…. Imagine being denied basic rights for so long… Being treated as a second class citizen simply for being the wrong gender, and having to lead a life that had been written for you… Of course you would feel angry and frustrated, and you can only be pushed so far before you start to fight back. People are so easily pushed over. Look at people now with the current government. We have protests and complain about the things happening, but it makes no difference. For the Suffragettes it was that on a very extreme level so, whilst it may be hard to condone their actions, it is understandable why they did what they did and I’m not going to judge them for it because if they hadn’t have done what they’d done, I wouldn’t have a say in whether my country could stay in the EU – perhaps the most important national decision I’ll ever contribute to in my lifetime.

    As for the film, I understand why you may all think that Sarah Gavron demonised men, but she didn’t demonise all men. The husband of Helena Bonham Carter’s character was supportive, as indeed some men were at the time, but it was necessary to present the majority of men, and some women, as unsupportive to present their struggle. It would have little emotional effect if the men were supportive. Where would the story be? Also, you are wrong in thinking that middle and upper middle class women weren’t really involved in the protests…. They were the most involved because they didn’t have to worry about working and taking care of children (they had nannies and no need to work) whereas the working class women, like Maud, worked almost non-stop and then went home to care for the kids.

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    1. Thanks for the female insight there Jade! 😉

      As I say there is a difference between understanding their actions and condoning them, whilst I freely admit it was just as wrong of the (all male) government to not look at WHY they were misbehaving and discussing it with them instead of seeking to quash them and hope they’ll stop.

      Interesting you brought up the female contributions during WW I as that wasn’t covered in the film – this puts the eventual political victory into a different perspective. Also the Suffragists weren’t so readily represented in the film which feels like another overlooked facet, but because of their notoriety the Suffragettes are the more well known group! 😛

      Just to clarify I did use words like “mostly” and largely” since again I was led to believe by the film it was the working classes who shouted the most! 😛

      I understand what you mean about needing the men to be the primary antagonists in terms of the story but in my opinion, one man was not enough to address the balance in terms of the misogyny the women fought against (and he was fictional character as well! 😉 )

      Still this has been one of the more enlightening films I’ve seen in a while as has this discussion, so thanks folks! 🙂

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