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.