Suffragette’s setting of 1912 East London is a strange paradox. Sarah Gavron’s film takes pains to distance itself from being a stuffy period drama; the action is so real and filmed in such a way that were it not for the bustles and fancy hats, the story could be taking place today. On the other hand, the political environment it showcases is so shockingly archaic that one can hardly believe it was just over a hundred years ago. Poverty is rampant. Working conditions are abject. Women are overworked, abused, and voiceless. More specifically, British women in 1912 are unable to vote. As iconic Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst (played by iconic actress Meryl Streep) reminds them in the film, peaceful demonstrations in the name of “votes for women” have gone nowhere prior to 1912. Suffragette tells the story of a band of women who recognize this and, like many other women at the time who were longing for a better life, turn to civil disobedience in the pursuit of equality.
The screenplay, written by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, The Invisible Woman), focuses on the story of downtrodden laundress Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan). Maud leads a pretty dismal existence where her adorable little boy George (Adam Michael Dodds) is her only real source of joy. She keeps her head down and doesn’t think much about politics until she’s introduced to the underground society of lady freedom fighters through her co-worker, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff). While resistant at first, Maud’s eyes are suddenly opened to the injustices around her and gradually she transforms from non-threatening laundress to a bonafide rebel who blows up mailboxes, gets arrested, and brawls with police in the name of women’s suffrage. The story arc is so conventional that it’s almost a cliché but it works exceptionally well in Suffragette. Anchoring the story around Maud’s initially naïve perspective is the hook that pulls the audience into an incredibly important moment in history – one of which, unsurprisingly, many remain ignorant. Maud’s story also hits an important thematic note: at the turn of the 20th century, the deplorable quality of life for working class women is so universally accepted that, as she expresses in her testimony to David Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller), she never considered the possibility that things could be different.
The performances in Suffragette are uniformly excellent. Mulligan, typically not the kind of woman you’d imagine blowing up Ministers’ houses, was perfect as Maud for exactly that reason. Her scenes with Adam Michael Dodds, running through the streets playing tag, are endearing, keeping the character well-rounded and relatable by providing a counterpoint to her illegal escapades with the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union, the Suffragette organization Maud gets involved with, under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst). The women are obviously the focal points of the film and Helena Bonham-Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Romola Garai, and Natalie Press (as real-life Suffragette Emily Davison) each deliver. That said, the male roles were also well cast and more complex than I’d anticipated. Ben Whishaw was mercurial as Maud’s husband, Sonny Watts, who is initially kind and supportive until Maud’s political activism becomes too flashy for his delicate, manly sensibilities. Brendan Gleeson as fictional Inspector Arthur Steed is a somewhat more nuanced character than poor, simple Sonny. Steed is a man tasked with hunting down Suffragettes like it’s his job – and it is, very literally. While the Inspector confesses he feels women are entirely capable and worthy of the vote, he has been tasked with flushing the rebels out and he does so with a high degree of success and more than a little internal turmoil.
|Anne-Marie Duff and Carey Mulligan in Suffragette.|
One caveat in terms of casting is Meryl Streep’s misleading prominence in promotional photos and posters. Streep appeared in the film only very briefly, although her scene is the lynch pin that takes Suffragette from being a cut-and-dry story of right versus wrong and transforms it into something altogether more complicated and honest. Streep steps into the role of real-life historical figure Emmeline Pankhurst and addresses a gathered crowd of women from a balcony in the middle of the film. Here, Pankhurst professes sisterhood and equality despite being both spatially and emotionally removed from the women she hails as her peers. The assembled women are from mixed backgrounds, but our heroines are working class with drab clothing, no money, and battle scars from a combination of police brutality and disappointing, abusive marriages. Pankhurst appears immaculate, well-dressed and refined, preaching her doctrine of civil disobedience. As the police close in on the impromptu meeting, Pankhurst exits hastily through a back exit, ducking into a carriage while her proletariat body guards willingly take a beating from the police. Although our Suffragettes are more than happy to protect their figure head, the audience is left wondering if this socio-economic disparity was part of the vision of equality Maud and company are fighting for. The scene is a discreet nod to the complexity of political action and it’s a fair and intelligent artistic choice. No solutions are perfect. Pankhurt’s “equality” is an improvement, certainly, but there’s still a long way to go.
Ultimately, Suffragette is a film about agency. At the beginning of the film, Maud is a pawn in the patriarchy, denied the right to speak up for herself by a series of legal and social roadblocks in spite of ghastly, ongoing violations of her human rights. While the Suffragette movement she aligns herself with offers an alternative and hope for a brighter future, her choices are still not entirely her own. From the very start of her indoctrination, Maud is told what to do by outside parties. Despite her discomfort, she’s forced into testifying at the House of Commons in place of her friend Violet who arrived to the meeting battered and bruised from a domestic spat. The WSPU also follows orders from the shadowy figure of Emmeline Pankhurst and several times in the film, Maud is given instructions and an ultimatum: she is either “in” on the movement and whatever destruction is on the agenda for the day, or she’s out. I am confident in saying this is a deliberate choice by director Sarah Gleeson and screenwriter Abi Morgan. It serves to remind us that freedom is often illusory and, even today, while we’re on undisputedly better terms with our male counterparts than our Suffragette sisters were, the agency of women still remains compromised.
Tragically, Suffragette received a limited release in Canada and the U.S. (It opened in wide release in the U.K. on October 12.) While finding a screening might be a challenge, it's well worth the effort for anyone interested in historical dramas, women’s rights, or great storytelling.
– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.