Movie Review: Suffragette (2015)
Director: Sarah Gavron
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter
Synopsis: The foot soldiers of the early feminist movement, women who were forced underground to pursue a dangerous game of cat and mouse with an increasingly brutal State.
It’s good to have a cause – it builds character and gives one a sense of purpose. But you have to know where the line between assertive self-expression and self-destructive obstinacy lies. At some point, you have to weigh the value of the prize against the price you’re going to have to pay, and decide upon your course of action. Sometimes you have to compromise – and that isn’t a dirty word if it provides a temporary refuge that allows one to re-think a faltering strategy. Few of us would give up everything – and I mean everything – for an ideal, no matter how worthy the cause. History shows us that there are a few – there always are. But Maude Watts wasn’t one of them.
Sarah Gavron’s muddy-coloured Suffragette paints Maude, a fictional character played with stolid reserve by Carey Mulligan (Shame, Far from the Madding Crowd), as a working-class warrior waging war in a pre-WWI feminist battlefield which was, in reality, occupied mostly by educated middle and upper-class women. Maud toils in a laundry workshop, working longer hours than the men – including her husband, Sunny (Ben Whishaw – Skyfall, Spectre) – and for less pay, and is only free from the sexual tyranny of her boss (Geoff Bell – Storage 24, Kingsman: The Secret Service) because, at 24, she appears to have grown too old for him. Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), a new workmate, opens her eyes to the inequality women face every day of their lives, and introduces her to the Suffragette movement, which is led by the educated doctor Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham-Carter – Sixty Six, The Lone Ranger) and counts among their number one Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press – Fifty Dead Men Walking), who will go on to play a major part in the movement.
Maud’s gradual indoctrination into the Suffragettes is initially met with begrudging acceptance by her husband, but his attitude swiftly changes when she’s caught up in a protest which results in her being imprisoned for a week. It’s at this point that Emmeline Pankhurst, (played for just two scenes by Meryl Streep – It’s Complicated, The Iron Lady), the leader of the Suffragettes, decides that the movement must adopt more militant tactics if it is to make its voice heard, and endorses a campaign of civil disobedience. Post boxes are blown up, shop windows are smashed, and David Lloyd George’s summer home is bombed. The women flee from their exploits like frightened rabbits, as if director Gavron hopes to prevent the audience from making the connection – as tenuous as it might be – between the activities of this feisty underclass and the religious fanatics who conduct similar campaigns of destruction on a much grander scale today.
It’s widely accepted that this escalation of militant activity proved counter-productive to the Suffragettes’ objectives, a fact which is ignored by the dull but earnest screenplay from Abi Morgan, who would prefer her audience to believe women’s emancipation mainly came about as a direct result of one woman stepping in front of the King’s horse at Epsom racecourse during the Derby in 1913, when, in fact, women’s tireless and invaluable efforts on the home front during WWI did more to sway the government than the Suffragette’s campaign of civil disobedience ever did. Manipulation of the facts in a movie like this isn’t uncommon, of course, but Suffragette is something of a trailblazer – incredibly, it’s the first theatrical feature-length movie on the subject ever to be released – and therefore has a priceless opportunity to deliver a story in which the facts are given prominence, instead of providing a weak spine adorned with soap-opera melodramatics.
Maude Watts makes for a strikingly passive heroine, who contributes little to the cause, achieves nothing, and loses everything she had by the end of the movie. Were she based on a real person hers would be a genuinely tragic tale, but Maud’s only purpose is to generate sympathy from the audience for a cause that attempted to achieve its goals by vandalising the property of the state, the church, businesses and ordinary people. And when a film has to resort to such blatantly manipulative fabrications in order to achieve its own goal, it simply cheapens the achievements of those it seeks to glorify.
(Reviewed 27th April 2016)