Film review: Suffragette

“Informative history of women’s suffrage movement but composite character protagonist is pure agitprop.”

For those who are unfamiliar with the history of the women’s suffrage movement in Britain, director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan have reminded us that the more radical participants did not follow the non-violent civil disobedience program as promoted by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during the 1960s Civil Rights movement here in America.

Quite the contrary, the suffrage movement leader in Britain, Emmeline Parnkhurst (played by Meryl Streep in a brief cameo), called for violent protest. And as the film makes clear, the violent nature of the protests escalated from broken shop windows to bombs thrown into mailboxes, clashes with police and even the arson torching of Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George’s summer home.

Gavron and Morgan tell this historical story through the fictional lens of their protagonist, Maud Watts, a laundress from a working class background. I would say their character is atypical of a woman of 1912, the year in which the Suffragette narrative begins. It’s a much safer bet to believe that the average woman of that time was sympathetic to the cause but disapproved of tactics involving any kinds of violent resistance.

While Maud might be atypical, Gavron and Moran argue in substance that she represents the type of radical Suffragette that actually was the catalyst in upsetting the social order, eventually leading to the vote for women. This was essentially Pankhurst’s view initially too—that violence was the only language the men of the time understood. But the film’s scenarists go a step further, suggesting that Maud is a symbol of victimisation at the hands of a nefarious paternalistic society.

Maud is not only betrayed by the male establishment politically (note how her brave impromptu speech in front of Lloyd George falls on deaf ears), but she is subjugated by a coterie of evil sexist males at every turn. These males include her loathsome boss who apparently has been molesting his female employees for years (presumably even Maude) as well as her co-worker husband, Sonny, who locks her out of the house after she’s arrested and then puts Maud’s beloved son up for adoption. Then there’s the matrons and prison officials who brutalise Maud and her colleagues, force feeding them against their will, not to mention the police, who club women in broad daylight, following peaceful demonstrations.

It’s not that these things didn’t happen, but it just seems all of them happen to Maud, making her less of a fully realised character and more fodder for agitprop. She even is part of the plot to firebomb Lloyd George’s summer cottage. Fortunately there is one semi-fleshed out character that keeps things moderately interesting: the antagonist of the drama, Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), who tails Maud and her confederates, taking surveillance photos with his technologically innovative, newfangled camera. Steed has the best scene with Maud during a prison interview —he informs her that the firebombing of Lloyd George’s cottage almost claimed a victim—a housekeeper, who returned to the house after forgetting something and just missed being killed. Maud is nonplussed at Steed’s “means to an end” diatribe and gets in her jabs in by pointing to the government’s hypocrisy, who deny women their basic rights.

The weakest part of the script involves the climax. How does one tie up Maud’s story? Well, just forget about her and focus on the plight of Emily Davison who became a martyr to the Suffragette cause in 1913. Ms. Davison had the unfortunate idea of making a statement at the Epsom Derby where King George V’s horse was running in the annual race. In front of three separate Pathe newsreel cameras that were filming the event, she stepped under the railing and on to the racetrack while the race was in progress (amazingly, you can watch it all on YouTube). Some believed she wanted to commit suicide but a modern day blowup of the footage reveals she was attempting to pin a banner on the horse as it raced by. Unfortunately the horse perceived Ms. Davison as an obstacle to jump over, but missed, bowling her over and crushing her skull (she died after four days in a coma).

We never do find out what happens to Maud after the tragic event at the Epsom Derby but do see actual newsreel footage of the thousands of women who attended Emily Davison’s funeral—the true-life quiet dignity of her supporters outshines the perhaps misguided over aggressive militancy of a fictional Maud.

Suffragette features a number of both fictional and non-fictional supporting players that give one a flavor for whom was involved in the women’s suffrage movement. Carey Mulligan does well as Maud Watts, adroitly capturing the intensity of the composite character Gavron and Morgan have served up here.

In the end the women’s suffrage movement was a bit more complicated than one character’s struggle against a monolithic sexist society. Notably Emmeline Pankhurst supported the British government during World War I and became a strident anti-Communist up until her death in 1928. As a basic history lesson, Suffragette manages to get a few things right historically about the women’s suffrage movement, but is less convincing in its melodramatic treatment of its strident heroine.

Lewis Papier. 

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