SUFFRAGETTE (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
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.

7 thoughts on “SUFFRAGETTE (Movie Review)

  1. Gavron’s conventional approach to the material compares unfavorably to the newsreels and stills of the actual suffragettes that close out the film. The harsh reality comes through in that footage in a way that the film as a whole only approaches in bits and pieces 😉

    1. Where the film got me, generally speaking (beyond the strong cast), was in this – from my review:

      “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. ”

      I think it’s easy to lose sight this far removed from the era that things were that bad, and I found this movie – while a but rudimentary in some respects (to your point) – effectively creating that reality.

      The bits and pieces got to me more. 🙂

      1. What about working-class men? The film seems to imply that the working-class men of this period had the right to vote, but in actual fact, roughly 40% of them did not have that right, because they didn’t meet the minimum wealth requirement. (To quote The Guardian’s Reel History column on this film, “even chaps had to prove they were paying at least £10 rent a year or held £10 worth of land” before they could vote.) Servants who lived with their masters and men who lived with their parents, etc., were just as disenfranchised as the women of that period. So were those men living “barely a notch above slavery”, too?

        FWIW, universal men’s suffrage finally arrived in Britain near the end of World War I, in 1918.

  2. Unjustly disenfranchised? Sure, but they weren’t subject to possible sexual assaults or other domineering/predatory abuses, or have to go home and be subjugated to their wives as well. I’m not saying they didn’t also have a severe class struggle, but as in most cases historically it’s always worse for women than men in the same class struggles (THE COLOR PURPLE is a good story that explores this dynamic too).

    Not to mention – the majority of men in society could vote. No women could. I’m not trying to minimize the struggle of men who were oppressed, but the oppression of women was more widespread and insidious than it was for men.

  3. Despite the somewhat melodramatic tone, Carey and the other actresses kept me glued to the screen. It also brings up issues relevant to today’s social movements, such as, is violence ever acceptable in pursuit of social justice? The combination of real and fictitious characters worked for me, and the production values were good.

Leave a Reply