*** out of ****
for some intense violence, thematic elements, brief strong language, and brief partial nudity
Released: October 23, 2015 limited; expands November 13
Runtime: 106 minutes
Directed by: Sarah Gavron
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Meryl Streep
Suffragette is an Honorable Mention on my Top Ten List for 2015
One need not be a feminist to be moved by Suffragette, the vivid retelling of the Women’s Voting Rights Movement in early 20th Century Britain. Furthermore, one can be categorically opposed to the modern liberal expression of that philosophy and still applaud the heroines of this history-changing fight – depicted here in gritty, hostile fashion. The egalitarian Downton Abbey this is not.
Even those who reflexively bristle at the tearing down of long-standing cultural institutions and mores (me, for one) can also look back at history and see times when some traditions needed to be torn down because they were unjust. The suffrage movement is one such time, and not because it was fighting for equality per se but, more importantly, for liberty.
Equality is an elusive thing, and the law can actually infringe upon it. Liberty, on the other hand, is neither elusive nor subjective. On the contrary, liberty can be guaranteed very concretely through the law. Suffragette is about the brave women who fought for liberty; to have the law changed so that women could have a say in changing it. The “Mothers. Daughters. Rebels.” (as the ad campaign describes them) weren’t fighting to be given the same “things” as men but, simply, the same opportunities.
Because, with oppressive clarity, they didn’t have them. Women – particularly those of the working class – were living a life of default indentured servitude, barely a notch above slavery. They may not have been owned but, practically speaking, they were free only by legal technicality. And if women didn’t abide the rules that men set for them, physical and sexual abuse was an unprosecuted means for men to wield their power, as was police violence to maintain the societal order.
Based on actual people and events, Suffragette is a dramatization that amalgamates different real-life leaders of the movement into a few fictional composites. Only two peripheral but important characters – including one portrayed in cameo by Meryl Streep – are based on actual women, and a third (played by Helena Bonham Carter) is inspired by one.
Carey Mulligan stars as Maud Watts, a young laundress who, after witnessing a co-worker taking part in a protest, gets pulled into the cause but with some hesitation. Despite living a grueling life herself, it remains fairly stable by comparison to others. Maud has a supportive husband and loving son. She’s not looking to rock the boat.
But as she continues to witness the abuse and violence toward women around her, Maud reluctantly but compulsively becomes more and more involved. She tries to strike a balance between her rights and her family, but it’s a balance that’s impossible to maintain, especially with the ultimatums drawn by a prosecuting police inspector (played with matter-of-fact intimidation by Brendan Gleeson). While Suffragette is effective at depicting a broad view of the movement, this story is, at its core, about one woman’s rise from being passive to active.
The sympathies of the filmmakers are clear, but they never bias the material in ways that distort the truth. Aside from the evil broad brush with which most men here are painted, nothing in Suffragette feels like a melodramatic stretch. It’s realistic and rings true. Director Sarah Gavron doesn’t just effectively capture the struggle; more importantly, she captures the visceral – and at times unsettling – cruelty that inspired the struggle, and made it necessary. She captures it all on actual film (rather than digital), too, and the subtle grain of film stock enhances the worn detail of the costumes, the locations, and the times. A pristine digital image would compromise that convincing aesthetic.
The Suffrage Movement was not without its controversies, and Allison Owen’s script doesn’t whitewash them. Increasingly, tactics escalated from small-scale destruction of property that proved ineffective (throwing rocks through windows and the like) to large-scale, and potentially lethal, means involving explosives. The movement went from advocating protests to inciting violence in desperate attempts to be heard.
Judging by the film’s general tone throughout, the filmmakers seem to condone every action taken, but not in such a fundamentalist way as to require the same exact sympathies from the audience. It allows for differing perspectives, in part by having sympathetic characters on both sides debate them. There’s space in Suffragette to disagree with positions the film itself favors, while still being moved by the film itself.
We can also differ about current feminists who proclaim to continue this legacy, but we shouldn’t allow that divide to obfuscate the value and honor we accord to those who opened the doors of liberty to women, and to the personal, brutal, and heartbreaking sacrifices that so many of them made. Sure, some of their tactics were questionable. The need to fight was not.