Tuesday, November 03, 2015


Finally, finally, finally I caught up with this film depicting the struggle of British women for the vote some 100 years ago, and by an accident of timing, on US Election Day of all days. I have been prepping by reading up on Sylvia Pankhurst, the radical activist branch of the famous family. Ironically, Sylvia does not appear in the film, and Emmeline's much vaunted appearance (courtesy of the venerable Meryl Streep) amounts to one striking speech and then a quick getaway.

A curious beast, this Suffragette. The lead character is a fictionalised launderess in Bethnal Green, played by Carey Mulligan, who is radicalised both by her grinding poverty and social inequities, as well as her associations with suffrage agitators, including Mrs. Pankhurst. Making a working-class woman the protagonist is to be applauded, but in fact, Mrs. Pankhurst was not at all interested in class struggle and specifically withdrew her WSPU organisation from the East End. It was her daughter Sylvia who was devoted to getting the East End involved in the struggle, who made common cause with the nascent Labour Party and who had a life-long intersectional political outlook. Her acknowledgement in Suffragette is limited to one comment by a male character that "Even Sylvia doesn't approve of the violence." No, she didn't, but she had a lot more to offer than that.

Well, what is in the film? Several real-life suffragettes, including the martyred Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), who flits in and out of the film, arriving in a prison scene and departing via her confrontation with the King's horse at the Derby. In between, we learn precisely nothing about her politics, her life, her reasoning. Nothing except that she hands Maud a book she has received from the suffragette/pharmacist Edith Ellyn (a delightfully arch Helena Bonham Carter), who I am intrigued to learn was a real person. Must read up on her.

While I got fired up watching the women venting their spleen by smashing shop windows in Oxford Street and blowing up pillar boxes, I felt there wasn't nearly enough depiction of this in the film, especially as it spends no time discussing their politics, perhaps reasoning that "votes for women" is self-explanatory. But, it isn't, as the split between the Pankhursts makes evident. Votes for which women? In the end, we are left with a dignified procession for Davison and a scrolling list of countries granting the right to women. The film feels very much like an exercise designed to be used as a teaching tool about equality. This may also explain the downplaying of the violence experienced by the protesters on the streets as well as in the prisons. There is only one depiction of force-feeding, suffered by Maud. While it is awful, it is nowhere near as harrowing as that shown in The Baader-Meinhof Complex, for example. Clearly, the filmmakers wanted that 12A rating.

The film's heart is clearly with the downtrodden women suffering degradation and belittlement at the hands of violent husbands (Anne-Marie Duff's Violet bears the brunt of this depiction) and sexual harassing bosses (Maud's intervention in this regard is curiously underplayed). It could have been much, much more.

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