Social movement movies — films about pivotal moments in the race, class, gender and sexuality wars — all have a tricky problem to overcome. They need to create a central, believable character the audience can invest in, without over egging the character’s place in a story that is always a collective one.
Suffragette (notice the singular) does a half successful job of getting around this problem, in part by not focussing on the woman history remembers as the British movement’s leader, Emmeline Pankhurst. Director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) could easily have chosen to go down that path, but Meryl Streep as Pankhurst appears for just five minutes, loftily speaking from a balcony high above the movement’s foot soldiers. In any case, frequent references to Pankhurst throughout the film give her plenty of credit for being one of the movement’s driving forces.
By zeroing in instead on the fictional Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), an ordinary laundress, it does a reasonable job of showing the every-woman nature of the movement, the interchangeability and shared grievances that produced such solidarity between women. Maud is only swept up into the movement’s heart when she is frogmarched into parliament as a last minute stand in for Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), an activist and Maud’s co-worker, who turns up black-eyed and beaten up by her husband the day she’s due to testify about women’s working conditions.
Flung into the witness seat, a trembling Maud tells the roomful of male legislators that she followed her late mother into the steaming, laborious business of laundering sheets and pressing shirts as stiffly as those worn by every man in the room. In an earlier scene, we see her interrupting her manager as he sexually abuses a young employee, and she sees her younger self, when she was his victim. Near the end of the film, the sense of a lineage of women is most literally referenced by the list of women’s names written on the title page of a book handed from one suffragette to the next.
“There’s another way of living this life,” she tells the assembled law makers, and Maud is understandably elated when her speech seems to press all the right buttons. But she’s soon radicalised in the space of an afternoon: when a parliamentary delegation tells rallying suffragettes they’ve decided not to give women the vote, the picketing women are ready to riot. But the camera shows them beaten and pummelled with blows from police batons and – in a prophetic echo of what’s to come – almost buried under foot by police horses.
The movie’s trailer makes much of the violence the radical wing of the suffragette movement resorted to – blowing up letterboxes and the Surrey home of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George – but the truly shocking (and original) violence depicted in Suffragette is the violence inflicted on women from every quarter.
A simplistic story often told of feminism is that the early suffragettes were concerned with civil rights such as getting the vote and equal pay at work, while the most recent wave of feminism has been preoccupied with bodies, and the harm done to them by both men and women themselves. In its almost central concern for the physical violence done to women, the film does feel quite modern. But Suffragette continually draws some pretty explicit connections between public and private lives of women; how they were caught in a violent pincer between the home and the wider world.
Women’s bodies here are not just abused by men: there are the self-imposed hunger strikes of the suffragettes in prison (and the brutal force feeding conducted by guards), there are bodies constrained in corsets and underwear that pop up strung on clothes lines in every second scene, and there’s Maud’s scarred arm, burnt from the hot water at work. Then there’s Emily Davison (Natalie Press) who makes the ultimate sacrifice of her body when she dies stepping in front of King’s George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby.
Another modern-sounding note is the way women’s bodies are also constantly under surveillance in the film: Brendan Gleeson plays a police chief whose job it is to follow and pore over photographs of activists. Cameras are even set atop the prison walls, in scenes that suggest screenwriter Abi Morgan has at least skim read her Foucault. The women aren’t completely passive victims of surveillance though: in the fatal racecourse sequence, as the scene cuts between Maud and her soon-to-be-martyred friend and the assembled media’s cameras, you’re acutely aware of their plan to turn the power of the camera around and gain the world’s attention to their cause.
Suffragette alludes to political tensions within the movement, particularly over the question of violence. It also suggests working class women were the foot soldiers of a war where middle class women were pulling all the strings. But it mostly glosses over some of the more interesting political questions in the service of giving a human shape to the story: we see Maud losing her son as the price of gaining a political voice, and watching the maudlin scene where she dances in the rain outside her former home on his birthday, it’s hard not to add to downpour with tears. But you don’t get a really deep sense of rounded lives, or a sense of the complexity of politics and strategy either –both of which were, by contrast, portrayed excellently in Pride, surely one of last year’s best films.
You do get a sense of a movement: suffragettes pinning medals on each other as hunger strikers are released from prison, women organising actions and working the presses in head office. Mulligan is good, but she can come across like the polite girl who stumbled into the women’s room at university. When she takes to living in a church towards the film’s end, the suggestion that she’s been elevated to sainthood is a little overdone. Helena Bonham Carter, meanwhile, as a politically committed pharmacist, was clearly born to play a suffragette, and you wish the film told more of her story.
Those who would like more Streep will be disappointed. But our desire for a movie star to be at the centre of a feminist story is a reminder of how much feminism (and the culture at large) has changed over a century. Where once a feminist who wrote impassioned words or made great sacrifices would become a celebrity, now the trajectory is almost always reversed: you become a celebrity first — and, if you’re Lena Dunham or Tina Fey or Sheryl Sandberg — you publish your feminist tract and become the movement’s new flag bearer.
The collective has largely been replaced by the individual, and personal success is now the first — and sometimes the only — proof of one’s feminist credentials. Ideas and analysis are now secondary to a life story, which have become the main event, albeit dressed up in a feminist bow. Insofar as Suffragette focuses on the heroic personal story of one young woman, you could say it’s a pretty modern take on one of feminism’s earliest origin stories.
Suffragette opens in Australia on Boxing Day