(This review contains spoilers)
In a film featuring Meryl Streep and Helena Bonham Carter, you’d expect Carey Mulligan to blend in. She doesn’t. Suffragette is the medium through which Mulligan allows us to view what life was like for a working class British woman in the early 1900s.
I expected action, yelling, irate women wreaking havoc and Meryl Streep at the helm with the powerful demeanour she portrayed in The Iron Lady (also directed by Sarah Gavron.) However, I was pleasantly surprised that only some of this was true. There was action and havoc, but conveyed in an empowering and intelligent way. As Mulligan’s Maud Watts rages at a police officer she articulates “we break windows, we burn things, ‘cos war’s the only language men listen to”, the desperate nature of the movement is revealed, but also shows that these women are strong and considerate and have used violence only when other more passive methods have failed. These are not raving mad, power hungry women.
It’s all about perspective
Additionally, Abi Morgan’s choice to write from the perspective of a working class woman allowed Maud to seem more accessible to the audience. We became Maud (I may have shed a few tears when little George was taken for adoption) and shared her anger at the disgusting sexual assaults she both experienced and witnessed at the hands of her employer Norman Taylor. However, the interesting addition of Romola Garai’s Alice Haughton, (whose husband refuses to let her use her own money to fund her friends’ bail) highlights that equal rights for women is not a working-class problem, and that the lack of respect for women appears to transcend class boundaries, from which the lack of women’s rights may stem.
Disappointingly, Streep’s appearance is brief. The necessity to focus on Mulligan’s character is clear, however Streep appears as Emmeline Pankhurst in just one scene and although her spirit is carried throughout much of the film, it felt a little like she’d been added for box office hits than to add any great value.
Male actors matter in a feminist movie
The performances of male actors must not be overshadowed here, because their characters are equally important, for better or worse. Ben Whishaw plays the dull but affectionate Sonny Watts, which makes it all the more striking that he succumbs to social expectations and evicts Maud from the family home in order to avoid further shame. At first I was shocked, but upon reflection the action depicts eloquently how women have fought for their rights without the support of those men who were supposed to care for them. Equally the abuse of the male policemen and humiliation in women’s prisons, even by other women highlights the lack of respect and care which Suffragettes were subjected to.
When asked about sexism and inequality today during a press conference at the BFI London film festival, Meryl Streep claimed that the lack of women included in decision making in many corporate bodies shows an inequality. Also claiming that unless the men within these bodies realise this underrepresentation then we cannot progress. The film itself highlights the immediate relevance of inequality today in which the dates women were given the right to vote are listed chronologically. In Britain, women over thirty were given the right in 1928 and most recently women in Saudi Arabia have only been promised the vote this year. Therefore the fight for complete equality is visibly ongoing.
A further point, which raised controversy regarding the film, is the outrage at a promotional stunt which backfired. In the advert some of the cast are pictured sporting t-shirts emblazoned with a famous quote from Emmeline Pankhurst, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”. Understandably the connotations in this caused offense, but there is also an important message here. When considered in the literal sense a slave is, according to oxforddictionaries.com, ‘a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them’. With regard to female inequality, these women are slaves to their husbands, fathers and employers.
This is not to say that Suffragette is a film about how awful men are and what a shit time women had. Instead the aim seems to be on sympathising with these brave women, who endured hunger strikes and beatings, as well as empowerment.
The pride shown in the cause is both heart warming and heart breaking – summarised in final scenes featuring Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral. Overall Suffragette is a powerful film, which although provocative is historically correct (as much as any Hollywood film could hope to be), that had me leaving the cinema with a determined spring in my step.
Join our tribe
We promise to pop a whole host of good stuff into your inbox every Wednesday to brighten up your week. Can't say fairer than that now can we?