By rights, there should have been more films made on the campaign for women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom by now. It’s a great story that is more relevant than ever today, and it’s completely dumbfounding that 2015 sees the release of SUFFRAGETTE, the first major film devoted to the subject.
We open in 1912 as the Women’s Social and Political Union’s campaign for the right of British women to vote gathered pace and resorted to increasingly violent methods to attract the attention of politicians. Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), an East London laundry forewoman, stumbles upon the Suffragettes’ latest protest and quickly transforms from a bystander to a prominent and active member of the movement, risking being ostracised by her family and wider society, as well as imprisonment in her fight for the vote.
Performance-wise, Suffragette a mixed bag. Carey Mulligan is the rock-solid heart of the film as the dignified, defiant working-class Maude, and Helena Bonham Carter plays well Edith’s pained weariness after years of being a useful member of society who has no say in it due to her sex. The film might have been more interesting from Edith’s perspective actually, from the point of view of a middle-class educated woman who has been invested in the fight for years rather than someone who falls into it. Ben Whishaw strikes about the right balance playing Maud’s husband Sonny, while representing patriarchy he is not presented as a cartoonish misogynist (that’s Geoff Bell’s job) but opposes his wife’s campaign more out of fear for the stability of their family unit than out of cruelty – he’s ignorant and closed-minded for sure, but his concerns come from a position of caring for their son George (Adam Michael Dodd).
At the other end of the scale, Brendan Gleeson does a good Brendan Gleeson impression as the policeman on the Suffragettes’ tail (and sets up a throwaway gag about the early 20th-Century idea of covert surveillance), Adrian Schiller does a rubbish welsh accent playing David Lloyd George, and Meryl Streep’s two-minute cameo as Emeline Pankhurst is completely and utterly pointless, seemingly just there to have something to put in the trailer. I’m not saying Pankhurst shouldn’t have been in the film, prominent figure to her movement as she was, but she works just as well as an offscreen presence, an idol for the woman on the street.
The strongest scenes are those set in the laundry where Maud works. The noise level alone is nerve-wracking, and the oppressive, super-heated atmosphere and the levels of abuse barely hidden from plain sight makes it unimaginable that so many had to work in these conditions right up until their untimely deaths.
Laundry scenes aside, I found myself wishing the film had been more harrowing. For a political film discussing historical atrocities and using them to comment on society today, it just didn’t seem angry enough. I had a similar problem with last year’s PRIDE. There are shocking moments, like the ominously jangling trolley being pushed along a prison corridor leading into the force-feeding scene, or seeing a crowd of female protesters being assaulted by the police in front of Parliament, but these are just fleeting glances filmed with a handheld camera. If we were made to watch even a single extended sequence depicting the extent to which these women campaigning for their independence and their freedom were violated by authority figures, the film might have lingered on the mind more. The only reason that I can think of that the film cuts around these key aspects of the plot is that writer Abi Morgan and director Sarah Gavron wanted to allow every girl in the country to see it. This is an admirable aim, but it might result in the film being more of a perennial text in schools than something that lasts or makes an impact outside the education system.
Suffragette does go out on the right note – simply showing a list of years that women were allowed to vote from in countries around the world. It hammers home how backward-thinking the UK was compared to countries like Australia and the USA, but also makes you gasp audibly at how late on Switzerland caught up with the Western World.
If this is the first film in a trend, then Suffragette represents something significant, a belated opportunity to explore in cinematic form a key period in history, the first step on the road to British women gaining control of their lives. But as the first of something, perhaps the film was bound to be a little too broad an undefined to make a real impact. There are great films to be made on women’s suffrage, but this is not it. SSP