While preparing to write this review, I wracked my brain trying to think of any other films I knew that concerned the history of the feminist movement or the battle for women’s right to vote. And I came up bone dry. Even films that are generally feminist in perspective, at least mainstream films, are pathetically hard to come by. (I exclude such films, more prevalent in the past 15 to 20 years, particularly within the genre of comedy, that would claim the feminist mantle by snarkily proving that women can be men too, while doing nothing more than celebrating the status quo of white upper middle-class life and winner-take-all capitalism). So even if Suffragette were not a very good movie, it would be notable and worth seeing simply because it tries to portray an era of history almost never portrayed, and a political movement that is almost never considered within popular culture, even as it is the foundation, in many ways, of huge swaths of what is taken for granted about the modern world. Happily though Suffragette is a good movie; it is not pedantic, and conveys the historical detail and political stakes of its subject in a naturalistic, fluid way while also connecting on an emotional level. While it does have its problems (mostly on a formal level), it also is powerful in that it pulls no punches, and does not lamely celebrate how far we’ve come, as you might expect such a film to. Instead, it is happy to paint the suffragettes realistically, as angry agitators willing to break the law, destroy property, and reject slow, incremental change in favor of direct action even at the risk of inciting violence. In this, it speaks to our own moment more so than a film that, like so many in the last few decades, dare only portray the fight against political injustice through the lens of passive resistance. It is a film unafraid to be angry.
The story concerns the political awakening and radicalization of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a wage slave toiling non-stop in a laundry in turn of the century London. She and her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) work together and, we assume, live in factory housing with their son George (Adam Michael Dodd). One day while out delivering some laundry, Maud is surprised when two women smash a shopfront window with rocks while yelling political slogans. Awakened to the idea of women’s equality, but still ignorant of the details, Maud is educated by her coworker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), who is generally a thorn in the side of management, and set to testify before Parliament and Prime Minister Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller) about the generally deplorable working conditions of the laundry, and particularly the condition for women, ahead of a general vote on women’s suffrage. Unable to testify because she has been beaten by her husband, Maud steps into her place and gives extemporaneous testimony. Present at a rally that hopes to mark the announcement of suffrage, Maud and the other women are outraged when Lloyd George announces the proposal did not pass. Maud’s affinity for the movement is cemented when the police, under the supervision of Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson), beat and arrest many of the women at the rally. Unable to bail herself out of jail, Maud is forced to stay in prison for a week, her husband and son at home only able to guess where she is. Freed, and all the more committed to the cause, Maud joins up with a more militant arm of the suffrage movement under the direction of Dr. Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), a rare female physician who cares for many of the workers at the laundry. They begin a campaign of bombing post boxes and breaking shop windows; at the same time, Inspector Steed begins to tighten the dragnet in an attempt to put down the suffrage movement. Sonny eventually sides with the law against his wife, and presses his claims to custody of their child, while shutting her out of the household. Maud is forced to live in a church attic which provides sanctuary for suffragettes, and visits George on the sly. Sonny, unable or unwilling to care for George without Maud’s support, puts him up for adoption, and after blowing up Lloyd George’s soon to be completed summer home, Maud and her cohort plan to use the upcoming Epsom Derby to get their message before the film cameras there to photograph King George V.
What makes the film powerful is that it ties together several threads that are often considered separately, or left dangling, in the popular imagining of what women’s suffrage means. Chief among them is the connection between economic justice and the vote – Maud is not interested in having the vote as a means to achieve some abstract equality with men, or to be able to exercise political power for its own sake, or to be the equal of her husband socially, but because it is the only road she can see to a less miserable life for herself and her family. Before he decides to take recourse in the law and deprive her of her maternal rights, Sonny and Maud are de facto equals in that both are wage slaves and both have little opportunity to change their circumstance, or provide a better one for their child; Maud’s testimony importantly makes concrete that poverty is not just deprivation of leisure and pleasure, but indeed a life lived in physical pain and an early trip to the grave. Where Sonny and Maud are not equal is in their treatment at the laundry, as the foreman, who controls the employees from an early age, the status quo begetting generations of misery, is free to sexually molest the female workers from a young age. So the film does well to tie together economic power and biopower, and to show how limits on one helps guarantee a limit on the other (and thus keeps bodies docile). Another strength is that the film portrays agitation in a realistic manner; the police are shown to be a tool of state repression, and the portrayal of officers beating up women in the street is an effective counter to the image that tends to be propagated, in popular culture, of the Victorian era and its long sunset as an age of decorum, patronizing chivalry, and of women kept prisoner in gilded cages. (Again, when do we see working women of this era portrayed? Almost never, and even when we do, they are still too often idealized, a la Downton Abbey). When Inspector Steed confronts Maud with the violence implicit in her act of helping to blow up Lloyd George’s country estate, she does not pause and is not chastened, but instead vehemently rebukes him, offering a critique of the state’s monopoly on violence, and effectively making a case that when deprived of figurative representation before the law, bodies must use the only force they have access to – that is, physical force. The film portrays Maud not as a woman who is nobly willing to sacrifice her family and child for her cause, as we might expect, but instead as a woman who has already been forsaken by society, her previous status of wife and mother just the scrim of propriety the social order has cast over a person who was born without power, without choice, and without recourse. She is driven, from point to point, to survive and work against this system by asserting whatever power she can find – be it in the indecorous use of her body, or in the raising of a rock, or the planting of a bomb. And the ending does not seek to tidy up the picture in any way. This is not a tale of triumph; it might shock those who don’t know, or remember, that the rights being agitated for at the end of the film are still 20 years in Britain’s future. The film is not without fault, but one cannot accuse it of overly sentimentalizing its subject matter. It does lack historical context in that we are dropped into 1908 and don’t understand where the movement arose from materially. This might not matter, but such emphasis is placed on the figure of Mrs. Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, who does stick out a bit), a fixation not only of the police, but of the film itself, which treats her as an enigma and as an avatar of the movement, without allowing us to understand her involvement, where she came from, or why she is important. The camerawork is also problematic in that it is of the shaky, handheld faux documentary style familiar to the work of director Paul Greengrass, but without much motivation. Do directors even think about motivation for camera placement anymore? The handheld shakiness would make sense in the crowd scenes, if we take the camera to represent the point of view of a member of the rally – but why is the camera moving otherwise? The framing is often sloppy as a result. These are minor distractions, though. Overall Suffragette not only does justice to its subject matter, it sobers us with the realization that so little has changed.