dir: Sarah Gavron
There is a problem inherent in this movie, at least from my perspective. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan both of women voting and of the people who fought for and earned the right (that should have been theirs from the start) to vote in Britain’s stupid, stupid elections.
Wait, why ‘stupid’? Well, tell me what point there is to enfranchising more than half the population of the United Kingdom when the House of Lords, the most transparently undemocratic institution since Robert Mugabe came to power as the ‘democratically’ elected dictator of Zimbabwe that’s only been around and certainly unreformed since, oh, about 1350, still bloody well exists.
It’s like Russian women having the right to vote: you have a dictator for life in the form of Vladimir Putin – who cares if you have the right to vote?
Well, whether it actually means anything, or whether it’s a smokescreen established to hide the fact that we vote for one of two sock puppets operated by the same person (you may have heard of that person, they’re known as The Man), the fact is that at the dawn of the previous century, the sisters in Britain had decided that they no longer wanted to politely ask to be allowed to vote.
Out the window went the cucumber sandwiches and the parasols, and in came blowing shit up, smashing windows, being tortured by the cops and doing what militant actions they could intended to force the government to capitulate.
I knew a little bit about the suffragette movement in Britain and the States, but not a lot of the particulars. I knew of the Pankhursts, and the sacrifice made at the races. I learned a bit when reading A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which was the first time I read about just how hardcore, how determined these women and their supporters were.
And then of course there’s the great mother character Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins who sings her awesome Sister Suffragette song, with the tremendous lines “Our daughter’s daughters will adore us / And they’ll sing in grateful chorus, Well Done Well Done Well Done Sister Suffragette!”
Getting back to the A.S. Byatt book, set during that tumultuous time, what stuck in my head the most was the references to a certain letter written by a certain lady, that being Lady Asquith, the wife of Lord Asquith, the prime minster at the time.
She wrote an open letter to the suffragettes admonishing them for their presumptuousness and explained to them at length, in a witty and articulate manner, why it was that women like them didn’t deserve the vote.
Why has that stuck with me all these years, when I’ve forgotten so much else? Well, it’s a fundamental reminder to me that what people often hold to be self-evident truths, like the self-evident truths that the US Constitution enshrines, are anything but. Deeply dumb people ignored for centuries the apparently not self-evident truth that women and people with skin colours other than pinkish-grey had minds and were people. It’s staggering, I know, that today’s obvious truth is yesterday’s preposterous fancy that would bring about the downfall of civilisation if entertained even for a moment.
Why am I waxing so rhapsodic about anything and everything other than the film called Suffragette staring the wonderful Carey Mulligan, Helen Bonham-Carter and a few other people? Because this flick makes a tragic error so tragic and erroneous that it renders its own existence pointless.
A few minutes from the end of this flick, we get to see that fateful day at the Epsom races in 1913 when Emily Davison, yes, that world famous woman called Emily Wilding Davison, who’s barely been in the flick at all, falls under the hooves of the king’s horse in order to bring the plight of Britain’s non-voting ladies to the world’s attention.
And yet for the preceding two hours, instead of following in the footsteps of actual suffragettes like Davison, Edith Garrud, Barbara Gould or Olive Hockin, or even the magnificently militant Pankhursts, we spend all our goddamn time with Maud Watts.
You know, Maud Watts? The fictional character designed to give an audience that doesn’t care a more relatable in into a story they’d otherwise find too hard going?
I’m not sure that it was a good idea or necessary at all, but I don’t work in the movie business, so what the hell do I know. Someone, or more likely a group of someones were positive they need a working class fictional amalgam-character in order to tell the story right. I’m not sure, to be honest.
Maud starts off completely uninterested in politics or anything controversial, despite talking like a Cockney chimney sweep / Eliza Doolittle before Henry Higgins does his Pygmalion transformation job on someone’s Fair Lady. But she is a woman, and a mother, at the dawn of a new century, to whom every indignity needs to be visited upon, so that she can then do… what does she do again?
She is nothing like the proper ladies what make up most of the membership of the Women’s Social and Political Union, who are all well-heeled and middle class or above. She lives in squalor, works herself to death for less money than the men around her at a laundry, and is subjected to constant sadistic sexual harassment.
She is a wife and mother as well, which brings its own complications. How do you fight for the right to vote, envisaged as being the only way to change the circumstances of one’s daily life, because unless politicians fear you vote against them in somewhat democratic elections, why would they do shit for you? It’s true, you know it’s true.
Everything is stacked against her. Her employer likes reminding her just how worthless she and all women are despite prizing their (cheap) labour, and about how much he’s enjoyed forcing himself onto her in the past.
Her own husband (the usually great Ben Whishaw, who has very little to do other than glower), though he seems like a nice enough man, is prideful and can’t stand being made a fool of (as he sees it). When she is encouraged, or manipulated, into talking about her life in front of some kind of parliamentary enquiry (into whether women are stupid enough for the vote, or too stupid to vote, just like the rest of us), she is given real hope only to have it dashed in front of her.
She then gets to experience (so that we get to experience them) every indignity and every possible form of heartbreak and physical, emotional and political abuse possible to a woman of the era (or that of still plenty of women living today around the world), and not only those that the suffragettes endured on their path to the vote.
Of course it’s disturbing, and it should be disturbing. It’s meant to indicate that a person doesn’t generally just wake up one day and decide to overthrow the state and its well intentioned paternalistic and misogynistic bullshit. A heap of injustice needs to be thrown their way before they get comfortable with the idea of blowing shit up or burning stuff down.
The most chilling individual in the whole film is also the calmest and almost sympathetic. Brendan Gleeson has played many an amazing character in his cinematic career. This is minor stuff for him, but it’s powerful nonetheless. He plays some kind of police detective / enforcer for the Empire whose job it is to control, suppress, bully, brutalise and otherwise destroy the women of the suffragette movement with every tool at his disposal.
And yet when he’s chatting to Maud, there’s no anger in his voice, no venom in him. He doesn’t express any contempt towards women or the suffragettes or their aims. Yet there is no doubting that he’ll do everything in his power to crush the women for as long as the government wants it done.
And, funnily enough, towards film’s end we find out that all he has to do is ensure not a single mention of any of this makes it to the papers for everything the women are trying to do remain unheard and unknown. And those newspapers, those blessed papers, are happy to comply.
We are told that this is what prompts Maud, who never actually does anything other than endure, and eventually exact revenge upon only one of her oppressors, and Emily Davison, to make their way to the races on that fateful day. And yet when I finally realised what was happening, and who Emily was (played as best as can be with such limited screen time by Natalie Press), I felt like screaming at the screen “Well, why the hell wasn’t this film about HER instead!”
It’s not a question the flick ever comes close to justifying. I never really understood why we were watching this story about a fictional construction (however well acted) when there were so many actual amazing women’s stories that could have been told. Even when laying out what the suffragettes faced it does their stories a disservice, especially when you consider that anything this fictional Maud did, and even what Emily did, never amounted to anything helpful until another 15 years had passed.
Maybe I expected too much. Stunt casting like Meryl Streep as Pankhurst, welcome as she might be, doesn’t amount to much when she’s in it for about one whole minute of screen time. Mulligan, accomplished as she is, really felt hamstrung by this awkward and unilluminating script. I understand that the political has to be personal for an audience to care, but there was just so much going on, so much more that could have been said about such a crucial struggle in the battle for women’s rights that I can’t help but be disappointed by this.
Feminism deserves better. Our daughters, wives, sisters, mothers, aunties, friends across the world deserve better. We deserve better.
6 times maybe the vote should be taken away from those who might vote for Meryl Streep at the Oscars again out of 10
“Dear Inspector Steed. I thought about your offer, and I have to say no. You see, I am a suffragette after all. You told me no one listens to girls like me. Well I can't have that anymore. All my life, I've been respectful, done what men told me. I know better now. I'm worth no more, no less than you.” – dear lady you’re worth much more than that – Suffragette.