It took me a while to get round to Suffragette, Sarah Gavron’s effort to put the struggle for female suffrage in the early 20th century on screen. Admittedly, I felt a little unenthused by the prospect, the posters not exactly enticing and the above trailer making the story look, I hope I may be forgiven for saying, a bit sexed up, what with the explosions and all. But, as Suffragette neared the end of its run in Irish cinemas – by the time I saw it, I was joined by just two others in the screen, and both of them men – I realised that I needed to practise a bit more of what I preached: here was a film, Oscar-bait or no, that featured a majority female cast depicting a very female issue, the exact kind of thing that Hollywood should be doing more of. Indeed, the paucity of promotional efforts might well be a symptom of that very particular malaise in the industry when it comes to such projects, so I felt duty bound to give Suffragette a shot.
London, 1912: Maud (Carey Mulligan) is a laundry worker, barely making ends meet with husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw), in an extremely harsh environment. After befriending fellow laundress Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) and chemist Edith (Helena Bonham-Carter), Maud gets sucked into the suffragette moment, women committed to acts of civil disobedience in order to win the right to vote. Targeted by the police, headed by Detective Steed (Brendan Gleeson), but inspired by the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), Maud faces a choice between her family and her principles.
Gavron’s vision involves taking the focus away from the real life personalities of the suffragette movement and instead placing it on the fictional, or at least semi-fictional, with Mulligan’s Maud the kind of character designed to showcase the state of some women’s lives in Edwardian Britain and encapsulate a range of experiences. There are some historical productions where this might not work, but it does in Suffragette, where Maud and her troubles – an hostile work environment, sexist pay structures, a non-existent political voice, sexual abuse and an unequal marriage – end up providing the audience with a brief window into the wide range of problems that the suffragette movement became bound up in, that goes far beyond the issue of winning the vote.
Suffragette works on that level, and as a decent character study, exploring the creeping radicalisation of Maud as part of the movement. The film starts with Maud witnessing suffragettes smashing the windows of a department store, destroying an idyllic scene of a family at a beach, killing tradition if ever I saw such an example. She is repulsed by the violence, but also enticed: there follows a slow fall down the rabbit hole, from satisfied wife and worker to armed rebel, and the film is smart enough to leave room for doubt on whether such a fall is a good or a bad thing for Maud personally, though the overall righteousness of the suffragette movement is made plain.
The contrast with real-life personalities is rather jarring. Emmeline Pankhurst, despite her prominent place in the films promotional material, exists in the film in a single scene, and while an effective one, you might feel that such a limited use of Meryl Streep is a bit of a waste. Of course, in the context of the “rank and file” of the suffragette movement, only this brief glimpse of Pankhurst makes sense, but those looking forward to a typically immense Streep performance will be left disappointed. Similarly, Natalie Press as Emily Davison has only a limited role to play in proceedings until her fateful moment, to the extent that those unfamiliar with history might be confused as to why the film suddenly makes a big deal out of her presence.
The sense of injustice that drives Suffragette is a mounting thing, usually preceded by an appeal to the existing authorities, appeals that fall on deaf ears. Maud, in a powerful early moment, dictates testimony of her life to David Lloyd George; she’s enraptured and inspired by the experience, but when the same politician casually dismisses the idea of female suffrage later, the truncheons of police are the next thing to be experienced.
Her husband is barely sympathetic to start with, a slimy weak individual played with the right sense of gutlessness by Whishaw, and all too quickly chooses the disintegration of their marriage rather than suffer the disgrace and social shunning that comes with being connected to the suffragettes. It is a familial subplot that touches forced melodrama at points, but keeps Maud’s narrative journey grounded, and forms a neat contrast with the more supportive husband of Bonham-Carter’s character. And the police are happy to use violence – whether it is directly or through arrests and force-feeding, horrifically highlighted late on – while ignoring the crude sexual advances made by men like those in charge of the laundry Maud is employed at.
The police form an interesting part of Suffragette, through Gleeson’s detective. He’s obviously Irish – indeed, I feel like Gleeson overplayed his accent a bit to get the point across – and while you can sense some sympathy for the suffragette argument emanating from Steed at times, his intense commitment to the law, procedure and the orders of superiors, make him a dangerous adversary, Javert-like in his enthusiasm for insuring order, or at least protecting those he sees as vulnerable to dangerous ideas. Steed seems to know he is fighting a losing battle to an extent, but also isn’t completely wrong when he attempts to get inside Maud’s head by drawing comparisons between the suffragette movement and the Irish Fenians, in the way they target those in vulnerable positions for recruitment, by dangling the possibility of a better future, while downplaying the risks and penalties involved in seeking it. Certainly, women in Maud’s position will risk more than those in the upper-class. Steed is ultimately a realist: when he cuts Maud off when she complains about the sexual abuse of the laundry owner, telling her that no one cares what she has to say, he isn’t saying it out of cruelty or malice, but merely pointing out the reality of the situation, and not wanting to sugarcoat it.
Of course, it’s hard to really cast a great deal of moral doubt on this story. The suffragettes move from rock throwing to blowing up post boxes and cutting telegraph wires, and to a few more explosive actions later on, but no lives are lost: in return, they suffer the most flagrant oppression, and all in the cause of stopping half the population from voting for no other reason than their perceived lack of ability to comprehend politics. The suffragette movement is depicted as having an air of insurgency about it, without ambushes and killings, and the Fenian comparison reinforces this.
The police efforts to bring them down, with targeted arrests, the effort to erode organisational and emotional supports, and always an eye on political repercussions, is a counter-insurgency campaign in most respects, and one that is doomed to failure. When you see suffragettes in prison watched and abused by female guards, its smacks of using locals to quell guerrillas. Beyond the bombs and the bullying, this is a war of conviction: Steed lacks a bit of it as time goes on, but Maud and her fellow fighters do not. When she says, defiantly, “We will win” to Steed during an interview, she really means it, whether she is “fodder” or not.
Part of that is down to Mulligan of course, a fine actress who has made quite the name for herself over the past few years. It seems like a long time since she was catapulted to broader attention in Doctor Who’s “Blink”, but her current status as a leading actor is well-earned, as her performance here proves. It takes a good actor to showcase a dramatic and near-total change in a character over the course of a film, and Mulligan does that, without gaps in the tale. Every abuse and injustice forms the person that Maud becomes, and Mulligan is there with every tear, every defiant shout and every emotionally deadened response to the same persecution, to make Maud somebody who undergoes that most terrible of metamorphosis, an accidental guerrilla, forced into such a role by the society around her. Duff and Bonham-Carter are serviceable in their parts, but not exactly setting the screen on fire – Bonham-Carter, in particular is very understated in this outing – and it is left to Mulligan to really carry the acting weight.
While I was enjoying Suffragette, the film has serious problems with its last act, or lack thereof. I will endeavour to explain without ruining the film’s plot for the uninitiated, but the perfect moment to form the conclusion of a second act, with the associated crises preceding a final triumphant victory, instead forms the conclusion of the film total, as if the production team had ran out of time at 106 minutes and couldn’t actually fit in a finale (the film also makes a certain choice with how that event is depicted, which is bound to provoke some controversy). Of course, women did get the vote in Britain, but the final moves towards that goal – such as, to name just the biggest missing element, women’s service during the First World War – are ignored completely, Suffragette instead taking a major moment in the movement that should have been depicted as a primary inciting act in the victory of the suffragettes as the endpoint, as if it and it alone was responsible. That this moment involved a character poorly fleshed out beforehand, with Maud and Steed serving as mere spectators, made it all the most surprising, considering the general quality of what went before.
Of course, what the film doesn’t really do, is paint a picture of the serious disputes and divides that characterised the suffragette movement at times, beyond some hand-wringing over the bombings, and the exclusion that occurred with single mothers and women of colour is also ignored, which is not to the films credit. There’s also a simplicity of approach when it comes to some characters, and the way that Maud solves a problem regards the lecherous advances of a laundry boss towards a friends daughter was oddly sudden, convenient and unbelievably easy.
The film ends with a closing crawl detailing the years when female suffrage became law in various countries, and a brief list of those nations, mostly in the Arab world, where it is still not law, essentially reminding the audience that the suffragette cause has still not won the ultimate global victory that is as inevitable today as it was 100 years ago, even if the time taken to get to that point has long since passed the point of acceptable. It is not surprising, or wrong, that Suffragette could be so nakedly political, and a film that showcases such a vital period in the history of feminism has every right to point a spotlight at those places which are still in need of a little reformation.
There I go, dropping the “F” word, a term that appears to inevitably carry a larger and larger weight nowadays, in the time of the Gamergate absurdity, rampant online harassment of women for the crime of being women and unprecedented focus on female specific issues and difficulties: sexual assault, access to abortion, public harassment, unequal working conditions, etc. Suffragette addresses many of these issues within its historical setting, but many of the experience depicted are as relevant now as they were then. This is a film that, barring the odd cutting room decisions of its ending, depicts feminist thinking, ideology and practise in an inspiring and appropriate way, at least in my view, and for that alone should be reaching a larger audience, even if it is predominantly female.
Gavron’s direction is to be admired for the most part. She successfully draws a line between the traditional female roles and the efforts to destroy them visually, and there is something to be said for the way that that harshness of Maud’s existence cane be seen in both positive – her family home with Sonny and her son, run-down but full of sentiment – and negative – the laundry, with an early montage showcasing directly the physical toll it takes on its workers – ways.
As befitting a film that is essentially about a war without (many) casualties, many of the more high-octane sequences have the sniff of war film about them, in the cuts and in the back and forth between opposing camps, the escalation and the repercussions. There’s even a “If you want to back out…” scene. The colour palette, in opposition to usual depictions of the era, remains resolutely grey, muddy and brown, with one brief glimpse of a park almost a shock to the system after so much time in the slums and dank prisons, and the music matches, staying out of the experience for large stretches. Indeed, with all of that, the film that I was most reminded of in comparison was Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, a picture about insurgency in the same period.
Attached to everything is the script of Abi Morgan – of Shame and The Iron Lady fame – which, mixed with the authentic period accents and surroundings, imbues Suffragette with the right kind of feeling for the period being discussed. Here is “low brow” slang and accent mixing with a high and mightier cause, and every defiant statement and every emotionally charged plea for the granting of a basic right gives the films central message additional power: Pankhurst’s “I would rather be a rebel than a slave” might be the kind of sentiment that causes a ruckus today (and the film is as guilty as any other in its whitewashing of history) but still grabs the attention as much as Gavron wants it too. “War is the only thing men listen to” is another, which sums up much of what the film is trying to depict with this section of the suffragette movement.
Ultimately, Suffragette can’t quite reach the heights that it should be able to. Maybe this should have been a Pankhurst biopic, maybe it should have spent more time on women during the First World War, maybe it should have been longer, maybe it shouldn’t have spent as much time as it did on the Watt family drama. You can only judge what has been put in front of you, and while Suffragette has many fine elements, not least Mulligan’s strong central performance, the script and the modern-day necessity of films of this nature, you can’t help but be disappointed by the strange non-ending or some of the supporting cast. Whole Suffragette is one of the year’s most important films, showcasing feminism’s importance at a time when the notion is under threat, it cannot be said to be one of the year’s best films, unfortunately. I would still recommend it, but cannot praise it to the hills. Suffragette is a film to inspire, but not, alas, to take a place in the pantheon of the greats.
(All images are copyright of Focus Features).