Cinema’s efforts to dramatize major social upheavals are always somewhat problematic, either focusing too wide, so that the viewer doesn’t adequately relate to individual participants’ challenges, or too narrowly, pulling their struggle out of the necessary context. Despite the predictability of some elements in its story, Suffragette (trailer), achieves a pretty good balance between background and foreground. The movie was directed by Sarah Gavron, with a screenplay by Abi Morgan.
By 1912, many decades of asking politely for the vote and expanded rights has achieved nothing for British women. Finally, their leader Emmeline Pankhurst declares, “deeds not words,” ushering in a new era of militancy, including bombs in post boxes. In part this new tactic is necessary because government and media collude to keep the suffragette’s demands quiet. No one knows the extent of the movement or public sympathy for it, and government wants to keep it that way. We see male officials fretting about the situation, but the film mostly shows “ordinary women” whose lives have become unbearably suffocating. Some of them are torn by the choices they have to make, while others have moved beyond doubt and are determined to grab the government’s attention, no matter the consequences.
The movie is fortunate in the actors selected for these foreground roles. Carey Mulligan is, as ever, perfect as Maud Watts, a young mother who’s worked in a Dickensian laundry since childhood and becomes involved with the movement by chance; Anne-Marie Duff is a true believer who has to reconsider; Helena Bonham Carter and Natalie Press have left doubt in the dust. (Bonham Carter is the great-granddaughter of H.H. Asquith, Prime Minister of Britain during the height of the suffragette movement, which he opposed.)
The government brings in a Special Branch investigator, played by Brendan Gleeson, to track the women’s movements, and he zeroes in on Watts, thinking she may crack. Meryl Streep makes a cameo appearance as Pankhurst, and of course it would have been great to see more of her, but that would have drawn light away from the everyday women who ultimately had to say to themselves, enough.
British women received partial suffrage in 1918 and full suffrage a decade later. “While nobody—least of all Maud—supposes that the vote will solve everything, it will at least be a start,” said A.O. Smith in the New York Times. As a scroll at the end of the movie attests, worldwide acceptance of women’s suffrage is still incomplete and, for many, the start hasn’t yet started.
Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 72%; audiences 74%.
It would be difficult not to compare this movie with Sophie Scholl – The Final Days, which I reviewed yesterday. Both are about young women standing up for their beliefs at the risk of their lives. Sophie Scholl was the more moving, both because she was a real-life person and because her beliefs were so well articulated in the face of the inevitable penalty. In Suffragette, the possibility, if not the certainty, of death was present and discussed. It is the more cinematic experience, with the lovely recreation of 1910 London, the grim laundry, and more women’s stories, which increase its universality. More than a hundred years later women around the world can identify with at least aspects of the economic, occupational, legal, sexual, and other inequalities these women collectively suffered.