Xa Rodger and Heather Nash discuss the depiction of the women’s rights movement in Sarah Gavron’s latest film…
On 4th June 1913 Emily Wilding Davison stepped in front of King George V’s horse at Derby races. She was a militant member of the suffrage movement around which the film is based. The film was written by Abi Morgan of Iron Lady fame. As in her earlier film, Suffragette contemplates a moment of political and social turmoil in a human heart. This is achieved by a stellar cast including Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, and Anne-Marie Duff.
It has taken a long time for a mainstream film about the British suffragette movement to be made. Director Sarah Gavron should be applauded for making the focus of her film a working class character. The film challenges the assumption that suffragettes were entirely made up of middle class women throwing stones. The evolution of Maud (Mulligan) from wife and mother to passionate supporter of the fight for women’s votes is heart-breaking. It illustrates the real and terrible sacrifices made by women for the cause they believed in. Gavron also resists the tendency to entirely demonise the male characters of the film. Brendan Gleeson gives a thoughtful portrayal of the police officer tasked with bringing the suffragettes to heel. He struggles with the increasingly barbaric methods used to punish women protesting for the vote. Gavron certainly does not shy away from showing this violence; the scenes of force feeding are deeply upsetting to watch.
There is a notable lack of acknowledgement of the multicultural makeup of East London at the turn of the century
The film is by no means perfect; the image of 1910s Britain has been whitewashed thoroughly. Gavron falls into the trap of showing only the struggle of white women. Obviously it is impossible to give an account of every demographic that fought for women’s rights. However there is a notable lack in acknowledgement of the multicultural makeup of East London at the turn of the century.
The film ends with the death of Davison, giving no resolution to the struggle of Maud. The audience is left with the reassurance that women did eventually get the vote they fought so hard for but without the reassurance that the characters that we have watched struggle will have any happy ending. It is Gavron’s way of indicating at the lack of resolution in gender equality today. The credits begin with a list of dates indicating when other countries extended suffrage to women. The last line lingers for a moment: ‘2015: Saudi Arabia are considering extending voting rights to women’.
There is no doubt that Suffragette is an important film that needed to be made.The incredible women who petitioned for the right to vote have long since been owed a Hollywood worthy movie of their own, and with a cast starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff and Meryl Streep, it seemed that we were finally getting exactly the film the movement deserved. Star studded Oscar bait it may be, but at least the famous names would bring attention and talent to the momentous events the film endeavours to portray.
Mulligan‘s performance as everywoman Maud, who finds herself pulled into the centre of the Suffragette cause, is gritty, empathetic and truly heart-breaking in places. Mulligan deserves all the praise she has been receiving – her performance saves what could be a clearly two-dimensional character from falling completely flat. Maud suffers enormously in the film – she separates from her husband, loses the right to see her child and is physically thrown out of her home – but these events feel like a perfectly put together fall from grace, that in moments ends up feeling a little too trite. Thankfully, the authenticity in Mulligan’s face alone reminds us, that yes, people like Maud were real.
Bonham Carter and Duff are also more than adequate in their supporting roles as Maud’s fellow sisters in arms and friends, but their talents are severely underused. Streep appears for all of five minutes, as a (literally) lofty Emmeline Pankhurst, and then drives off into the night. The character of Pankhurst is such an interesting and complex one, her politics so dividing in opinion, and Streep such a capable actor, that the film feels like it’s missed an opportunity by not exploring her more deeply.
History has been made neat
Overall, the problem is that such a deeply emotional and troubling subject as the Suffragette movement has almost been done up with a bow and a few muted shots of Georgian London. The film feels decidedly ‘Hollywood’; a brief introduction to the Suffragettes, reserved in its content, with only flashes of real anger and desperation here and there. The script comes across as cliché, and whilst major events like the force feeding of imprisoned women, the blowing up of Lloyd-George’s house and Emily Davison’s sacrifice in front of the horse at the Derby are shown, they feel like neat dots on a map, to be duly given their screen time. In fact, Emily Davison’s hugely important, media-inciting act of martyrism feels almost perfunctory, and this is a mistake.
The Suffragette movement was violent, desperate and chaotic. It was by no means perfect. There were divisions amongst women, mixed with class and race discrimination not hinted at all within the film. History has been made neat.
Perhaps, now that Suffragette has laid the foundation, in another couple of years another filmmaker will come along to add the richness and complexity that this important subject needs.
Image: The Telegraph