Directed by: Sarah Gavron
Cast includes: Geoff Bell, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Romola Garai, Brendan Gleeson, Finbar Lynch, Carey Mulligan, Natalie Press, Meryl Streep, Samuel West, and Ben Whishaw.
Suffragette is an important story being retold at an important time. Over the last few years we have seen massive social media campaigns denying the place of feminism in the world and political leaders such as Julie Bishop echoing those sentiments. Suffragette reminds us of the lengths women had to go to for rights that we still don’t have permission to exercise without harassment.
The film focuses on the British suffragette movement, and most specifically their highly militant period just before The Great War. The point of this film is not the achievement of suffrage – the story doesn’t go that far. Instead it is about the lengths women had to go to be seen and heard and the level of frustration and disempowerment they were experiencing which made them take on such aggressive means to become a part of the conversation.
Whilst the film is architecturally bound by real historical figures, the core characters of Maude (Mulligan) and Emily (Bonham Carter) are fictional composites typifying the diversity of how the foot soldiers of such a violent struggle came to find themselves making history. Emily’s story is the simpler one.
She is a woman with a pharmaceutical degree. She is a better chemist than her husband but because of her female status she has to allow the business to be owned and run by her husband as a figure head. Her participation in the suffrage movement is already well established at the start of the movie and the back room of the shop is a meeting place for the movement and is also where Emily practices her profession.
An important aspect of her role in the film is that her husband (Lynch) is fully in support of her work and the movement. He is the only man in the film who represents this perspective.
The story itself centres on Maude who is a young, married laundry woman and mother. She is living her life quietly surviving and moderately happy. Her husband (Whishaw) and she have a seemingly happy life with a young son although they are very poor and the work is hard.
Maude has no interest in suffrage. It is not something she has even really thought about and she is terrified the first time she encounters the reality of it, finding herself accidently in the midst of the famous window smashing campaign of 1912.
Maude’s story is important because it speaks to all the women out there who don’t want to get involved, or who think feminism is not necessary anymore. As Maude’s political awareness is awoken, more and more of her life gets stripped away from her. The truth of her powerlessness is brought home to her in waves of aggression which decimate her life.
This film does not only speak to feminism and suffrage. If you ever wanted to understand how radicalisation works, this is quite an interesting instruction manual.
It is also interesting to note that by this time in history New Zealand, Australia, and Finland had already established national suffrage and in Great Britain and Ireland single women who were ratepayers had been allowed to vote in local elections since 1869. It is hard, through the lens of history, to understand what the concerns were and yet we still see echoes of it in modern times. To quote Tony Abbott (2010) “While I think men and women are equal, they are also different and I think it's inevitable and I don't think it's a bad thing at all that we always have, say, more women doing things like physiotherapy and an enormous number of women simply doing housework.”
The acting in this film is great, and the use of a bruised colour palette in the design and cinematography gives in a nice sense of history without using traditional sepia tones and beautifully echoes the purple, green and white of the suffrage movement. It was wonderful to see Bonham Carter play a real character rather than a white-faced caricature which we have seen rather a lot of in the international market.
Mulligan is sweet as Maude. I probably would have liked to see her get hardened by her experiences a bit more, but that may be just a bit too close to reality to risk in a film which will already be facing a prejudiced audience.
If you wait long enough you will get a glimpse of Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst but then blink and you will miss her. It is probably stretching the truth somewhat to say she stars in this film. Even as a cameo, her scene is awkward. This appearance feels like a marketing ploy but I guess if it works and more people come to the film to see her that is a good thing.
Suffragette is a good movie, and a very important one in these times. At the end of the film they display a timeline of universal suffrage across the world to date. There are some real surprises with regard to how recent suffrage is in very prominent countries, and the matter is particularly relevant in the world right now with Saudi Arabia having just formally agreed to introduce a suffrage bill next year.