I still haven’t seen this film. Mostly because I have yet to read anything particularly good about it. The piece below suggests that it is also, in places, anachronistic.
Social movement movies – films about pivotal moments in the race, class, gender and sexuality wars – all have a tricky problem to overcome. They need to create a central, believable character the audience can invest in, without over egging the character’s place in a story that is always a collective one.
Suffragette (notice the singular) does a half successful job of getting around this problem, in part by not focussing on the woman history remembers as the British movement’s leader, Emmeline Pankhurst. Director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) could easily have chosen to go down that path, but Meryl Streep as Pankhurst appears for just five minutes, loftily speaking from a balcony high above the movement’s foot soldiers. In any case, frequent references to Pankhurst throughout the film give her plenty of credit for being one of the movement’s driving forces.
By zeroing in instead on fictional Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), an ordinary laundress, it does a reasonable job of showing the every-woman nature of the movement, the interchangeability and shared grievances that produced such solidarity between women. Maud is only swept up into the movement’s heart when she is frogmarched into parliament as a last minute stand in for Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), an activist and Maud’s co-worker, who turns up black-eyed and beaten up by her husband the day she’s due to testify about women’s working conditions.
Flung into the witness seat, a trembling Maud tells the roomful of male legislators that she followed her late mother into the steaming, laborious business of laundering sheets and pressing shirts as stiffly as those worn by every man in the room. In an earlier scene, we see her interrupting her manager as he sexually abuses a young employee, and she sees her younger self, when she was his victim. Near the end of the film, the sense of a lineage of women is most literally referenced by the list of women’s names written on the title page of a book handed from one suffragette to the next.
“There’s another way of living this life,” she tells the assembled law makers, and Maud is understandably elated when her speech seems to press all the right buttons. But she’s soon radicalised in the space of an afternoon: when a parliamentary delegation tells rallying suffragettes they’ve decided not to give women the vote, the picketing women are ready to riot. But the camera shows them beaten and pummelled with blows from police batons and – in a prophetic echo of what’s to come – almost buried under foot by police horses.
The movie’s trailer makes much of the violence the radical wing of the suffragette movement resorted to – blowing up letterboxes and the Surrey home of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George – but the truly shocking (and original) violence depicted in Suffragette is the violence inflicted on women from every quarter.
(Excerpt etc. first posted on. Orig. attribution above.)