When does violence become a necessity in a movement to advocate for one’s rights? Surely, violence is an imperative when oppressors confuse pacifism with passivity and confuse non-violence with weakness. What happens when privilege that has been usurped by death and bloodshed is confused with justice and rights? Surely, subjugation will not end until there is a violent overthrow.
Such questions and answers gave rise to the important issues that the British Women’s Rights Movement dealt with in its transformative stage in the early 1900s. And it is these issues that spin Suffragette into one of the most striking films to deal with the story of the Women’s Rights Movement at its most crucial period in history.
Indeed, Suffragette covers ground which some will find surprising and inspiring. Screenwriter Abi Morgan and director Sarah Gavon have created an iconic film which is a hologram of the present over the past. It is unique from all other narrative films and documentaries about women’s voting rights in its power, poignancy and empathy. Morgan’s gripping story is based on a compendium of women’s true accounts in London, England, around 1912 (the film’s setting).
Ten years in the making, Suffragette shines an incredible light on this nightmarish social period that we only can imagine existed as we thankfully appreciate that women have moved to a parity with men in most professions. But as screenwriter Abi Morgan pointed out in a Q and A after the film screening, like Carey Mulligan’s character Maud Watts, many women globally still face the horrors of sexual abuse and predation. Sex trafficking and sexual enslavement is flourishing as is women’s objectification in the media and film, though there has been a half-hearted attempt to “do something.” Child brides, arranged marriages, and telefa (kidnapping a woman and raping her as a man’s marriage rite), is the way of paternalistic cultures which abrogate the right of women to give voice to their sufferings or fight back in self-defense. Indeed, not only is the subject of the film incredibly current, the spirit of male oppression of women embodied in the attempt to politically limit a woman’s right to choose what she can and can’t decide for her body and herself, is an ongoing and divisive political issue in the U.S.
Knowing all of the pitfalls that they may have encountered in making this film which ultimately advocates for women’s rights and freedoms then and now, Gavon and Morgan have dodged the abyss; with equipoise they have recreated a piece of history which will appeal to both men and women. This is primarily because of the film’s moderate tone and perspective; it lacks a heavy-handed, bludgeoning view of truths from the past which are painful for both men and women to acknowledge. It reveals prevalent assumptions about women at the time, and then reveals how the women’s movement overthrew these assumptions by the very nature of the choices the Suffragettes made and the courage and determination of their convictions which led to productive action.
The filmmakers’ work is incisive and balanced in its realism, conveyed in part by the fine cinematography. The historical rendering of the sets, streets, costumes, and other aspects of art design convey the depths of a time period which Gavon reveals to be bleak and monochromatic for both men and women of the working classes. All struggled to make some kind of sense out of the economic injustices and impoverished conditions. Both men and women, husbands and wives were joined in the same struggle to grasp hope and try to survive. Working class men and women came short of the privileged elites; both suffered the privation of low wages. And though men made more than women, it wasn’t a tremendous monetary difference. It was the privileged wealthy and landed gentry and male business owners that oppressed; gender wasn’t a factor, class and money were. Indeed, as implied in the film, if a gentleman or business owner preyed upon a woman of the lower classes in his employ, it would behoove her husband to look the other way in the hope of possible gain or favoritism.
The film is exceptional because of the finely tuned characterization of Maud Watts (Mulligan’s portrayal of Maud is nothing short of genius), as protagonist in this of story of the Suffragettes. We understand the evolution of the women’s movement through her viewpoint and her gradual transformation. As a result of the people she encounters and events she experiences, we are brought to acknowledge that either the movement forges along a new path and raises its stakes, or it perishes from co-optation by the politicians who promise to bring women to an enlightened state but who only give lip service to the idea while sitting in the shadows doing nothing. As Maud gains legitimacy in her person-hood, the movement gains force and escalates its protests and visibility. It is an interesting and intriguing parallel Morgan intuits between the character and the movement.
The filmmakers have rightly decided to cover the Suffragette movement at an enthralling turning point. As they do this, they segue how a laundry worker, Maud Watts, becomes involved at this most dynamic period. Watts is swept up in events which she allows both out of necessity and out of the growing realization that her life is important for herself, in herself, because she is who she is, and she has a right to be proud of this. She begins to identify herself apart from her husband’s identity after helping out friend Violet Miller (an excellent Ann-Marie Duff), who works at the laundry. Maud’s continual participation in the movement gives her a renewed courage and hope, though eventually she is forced to make a heart-rending and tremendous sacrifice. So when the leader of the London Suffragettes, Emmiline Pankhurst (played beautifully by Meryl Streep), gives her speech advocating violence as the only language men understand, Maud comes to recognize the logic and soundness of Pankhurst’s argument. What the Suffragettes go through, arrests, jail, hunger-strikes, force feeding, clubbing during demonstrations and more…and all to get the right to vote? It seems preposterous women were denied this basic privilege. They were, they still are in some countries.
The film moves far away from the somnolent, status quo existence Maud experienced when we first encountered her. Provoked by her employer for his abuses, she takes a passionate and violent stand against him. Other devastating events occur which strike at the heart of who she is and what she is willing to do to advocate for this vital women’s cause. Thus, when Maud eventually meets Emmiline Pankhurst face to face and Pankhurst adjures Maud, to “never surrender,” Maud becomes fortified, even electrified. She is able to realize that her own actions make a difference. It is then we see how far she has progressed. She has moved from bare existence, from being an individual who doesn’t realize the value of her life, to a woman of substance. When Pankhurst encourages her to “never surrender,” it is a defining moment between Streep and Mulligan.
The cast is well selected. Helena Bonham Carter portrays the feisty and commanding Edith Ellyn (this actress can do no wrong), the explosive arm of the movement whose courage is daunting yet contagious. Carter reveled in the part as the granddaughter of connected, upper class grandparents who in real life opposed the Suffragettes, according to director Sarah Gavon in the Q and A after the screening. Romola Garai is excellent as Alice Haughton, a supporter of the Suffragettes who tirelessly works to get empathetic politicians to move to pass women’s voting laws to no avail. Haughton is still involved when the movement steps up the ladder into violence, but is not as visible. Ben Whishaw is very fine as Maud’s long-suffering and sympathetic husband who eventually breaks when the events become dangerous and Maud has “gone over” to being a “hated,” and despised Suffragette. Brendon Gleeson is the tough but measured Inspector Arthur Steed, who must do his job arresting the women and being stalwart against these who are law breakers. Both men are sterling counterpoints and align with Gavon’s and Morgan’s attention to balance the characters leading them far from caricatured stereotypes.
This is a terrific film that you must appreciate on many levels or you will miss its artistry. The acting, cinematography, art design, costumes, and music round out the atmosphere of the film and make its import very real. The film moves in starts which is truly incredible. The action erupts and as the plot arc crescendos to the conclusion, I was shocked. And I was moved. Morgan’s writing of the last crucial events of the film and the direction and cinematography make Suffragette touching, riveting, memorable. The film is an amazing reminder of what happens when the wheel turns round and plunges off its axis. Nothing is impossible.
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