Charlotte Palmer reviews this stirring and poignant drama about women’s struggle for the vote in Edwardian England
We’re used to seeing British historical dramas through an idealised haze of nostalgia: The King’s Speech; that nice film about Dickens and his mistress; everything the BBC produced in its recent literary classics season. We’re used to seeing impressive shots of the city made to look old, with people in fancy outfits and big hats, reflecting on some version of the past that is ultimately artificial and unsatisfying.
But Suffragette’s setting is the physically, emotionally and sexually poisonous laundry in Bethnal Green. The focus is not on kitsch cinematic tourism and trivia, but on the toxic. The film avoids the easy route of glamourising through costume or setting: a welcome decision which breathed life into the women’s struggles, and with much of the film set indoors, the claustrophobic nature of the characters’ lives was palpable. Apart from an evocative West End street scene at the beginning, the film manages to avoid gratuitous, sweeping shots of London, and the film’s net of locations including tiny bedrooms, the laundry, and Holloway Prison, were a clear contrast with the boardrooms of Westminster. Director Sarah Gavron makes the opposing forces of working class women’s labour and male Establishment domination keenly felt.
Through its female workforce who undertake the majority of its backbreaking tasks, we are introduced to the slums, and the overarching, inescapable framework of early 20th century patriarchy. The main female characters are working-class, conveying the vast gap between how much power is wielded in Whitehall, and how little of it makes a difference to those most in need of basic rights. Perhaps the camaraderie between the poorer women and the middle class, well-meaning suffragettes is a little implausible, but Gavron does well to realistically display the different kinds of women involved in the movement.
While the film still has a little bit of the Conservative, middle-of-the-road costume drama about it, (it does involve Meryl Streep wearing a big hat while standing in a stately manner on a balcony after all) there are also flare-like moments of extraordinary emotional and physical force: Suffragette is a stirring and very moving portrayal of women’s struggle for their human rights to be recognised.
This is mostly thanks to the superb acting. Carey Mulligan, who plays the fictional Maud Watts, gives an unceasingly emotional performance of poignant and subtle sincerity. Maud, who begins the film by being grimly conflicted about the suffragettes’ strong presence in London, is ruled by the decisions of her husband, her employer and a government wilfully deaf to her situation. The relationships between the women was particularly moving – having a female director and screenwriter attached to the film evidently helped to create a strong sense of alliance between the characters despite the class gap: Gavron and writer Abi Morgan both testified to this at the LFF press conference for the film. Besides, an all-female cast is still so unusual and refreshing to watch, but sadly it is a rare delight.
Yet, Suffragette turned out to still be afraid of telling the real truth; the role of women of colour in the British female suffrage movement is totally erased from the film. At the press conference, Morgan didn’t address why this was the case, or fully discuss the ‘rebel not a slave’ controversy, only that it was a difficult situation, and that she was glad a dialogue about race and the film had been started. Her response didn’t exactly feel adequate, given the media’s widespread coverage of the film’s whitewashing – you’d think the writer would want to contribute to said ‘dialogue’.
This huge oversight aside, I liked how the film refuses to conclude with the final moment the vote for women was won. This is partly because pinpointing the end of the campaign is difficult, as it came in stages: when all women were given the vote, (not just some over 30) the year was 1928, a decade and a half after the events portrayed in the film.
Finishing with the law of 1928 would also have implied that this was the last time that women’s rights were relevant. Suffragette actually ends with Emily Davison’s death at the Epsom Derby and her funeral procession, another catalyst in achieving the vote that also made global headlines. The shock of Davison throwing herself under the King’s horse rendered it impossible for the government to maintain its stranglehold on press coverage of the suffrage movement, but also made for a powerful cinematic ending.
This also better reflects history – there is no one moment when the struggle ends. The end credits are preceded by the years in which women won the vote in different countries, ending with 2015 and Saudi Arabia’s promise of voting rights. Suffragette has received some criticism for not feeling relevant enough to the kinds of sexism we see today, but this seems like a reductive remark. It’s not a film’s purpose to shoehorn in references to the modern world, although inevitably some parallels can and will be drawn: the roll of countries at the end reminds us of how varied and complex the struggle for women’s rights is, depending on who you are, and where you are in the world. Rather than try to make comparisons between one historical drama and the past and present struggle for human rights, appreciate Suffragette for what it is: an absorbing, well-made film – if a little too well-mannered for my liking.
Suffragette is in UK cinemas now
Featured image credit: https://www.hdwallpaperup.com/2015/07/suffragette-poster/