Suffragette (2015)

suffragette_2015_poster
Suffragette (2015)
  • Time: 106 min
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Sarah Gavron
  • Cast: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Meryl Streep

Storyline:

A drama that tracks the story of the foot soldiers of the early feminist movement, women who were forced underground to pursue a dangerous game of cat and mouse with an increasingly brutal State. These women were not primarily from the genteel educated classes, they were working women who had seen peaceful protest achieve nothing. Radicalized and turning to violence as the only route to change, they were willing to lose everything in their fight for equality – their jobs, their homes, their children and their lives. Maud was one such foot soldier. The story of her fight for dignity is as gripping and visceral as any thriller, it is also heart-breaking and inspirational.

4 comments

  • When Maud Watts, barred from her husband’s rooms, charges in to bring her little son a birthday present, her gift is a silly little toy elephant. The gift is a cheap trinket, pathetically wrapped. As it’s all she can afford, it expresses not just her love but how her circumstances have so direly restricted her emotional and material life.
    The mingy elephant resonates further. It’s exotic, from another world, scarcely more remote than the posh family life of the department store mannequins that captivated her before the suffragettes smashed the windows.
    The context discovers a further irony. Maud finds that her husband has given their son away to adoption. His new parents are there, promising their version of the mannequins’ life. Maud’s last words to her son are her name. She begs him to remember it and that he will someday come to find her. The elephant embodies her appeal to his memory. This unwitting aptness of the gift attests to the power of her intuition, as she gradually engages with the movement and resists the temptation to turn narc.
    This recreation of the early days of Britain’s suffragette movement abounds in scenes of such misery, pathos, and thwarted but resilient spirit. It’s a very touching film with a lasting political pertinence.
    The film’s subject is not just the early days of the women’s movement but the harshness of the patriarchal establishment that refused to cede away any of its power. In that way it speaks for the suppressed and silenced of any kind, in any culture.
    The harsh laundry manager who sexually abuses one girl — and by implication similarly violated Maud when she came to work there as a child — is on the same continuum as the dogged police inspector determined to make the women respect the unrespectable law. As Maud brands the former with her iron, she seems to arouse an unarticulated respect in the copper.
    Like any serious historical film, this is about the time it was made as well as the period in which it is set. Why else tell that story now?
    We’re in the third wave of feminism in the West, but the battle is far from won. Women have the vote but they are still far from equal. Glass ceiling and walls persist. Hence too the horrible stories of women harassed and violated by their colleagues in the fire department and the army and even by the famed RCMP.
    Canada’s new prime minister Justin Trudeau is still asked to explain why he appointed a cabinet with half its members women. Even such a customarily wise columnist as Andrew Coyne trotted out in advance the old concern that women could only be appointed with a compromise in merit. He was suitably impressed by the appointments once made, but he remains diminished by that initial knee-jerk concern. An Alberta MLA finds there is no provision for her unprecedented situation, her imminent maternity leave.
    So you’ve come a long way baby. But frankly we — men and our systemic authority — have a lot further yet to go.
    The film is current in an additional sense. End titles record when various countries gave their women the vote. Qatar has just done that and Saudi Arabia has promised it. But much of the world does not extend even our inadequate recognition of women’s due equality. London’s brutal attack on women demonstrators here recall the scenes from the Arab Spring Egypt and Iran. Around the world rape is a military strategy.
    In the current cultural war between radical Islam and Western civilization, women’s rights are a crucial battleground. The abuse of women in Muslim countries seems like a time machine flashback to our earlier, shameful days. But with time machines it’s sometimes hard to know if the gear is forward or reverse. The London violence and repressive patriarchal laws here could be a flash forward to Europe under the threatened Caliphate. Time, as usual, will tell.

  • More and more these days movies are “based on a true story” or some other disclaimer to get us to think that what we’re watching really happened. Sometimes the stories are quite factual and other times the true parts are just the background. Either way a great deal is fiction from the dialog to personal relationships to emotional builds leading to the climax and leaving the audience satisfied that they have seen a good movie. In the end, entertainment, getting the audience to want to see what happens next, trumps accuracy. Many of these movies look much better on a small screen. Huge movie screens tend to point up the problems especially when everything else is so good. So it is with the movie Suffragette.
    It’s a true story but it is a true story that has been told often in serious movies like this one all the way to The Simpsons and Mary Poppins. Specific events may not be in your memory but the general outline is there. We also know how it’s going to end which does remove some of the excitement. The only thing that did take on appalling dimensions was the fact that woman still don’t make what men make and some groups feel as if women are second class citizens who should be controlled by men. One of the most telling bits was a very short scene, a few seconds at best, of a man walking down a hall as two women come at him. The women are prison guards but he doesn’t waver from his walk down the center of the hall and the two women have to get out of his way.
    The screenplay was written by Abi Morgan and everything that needs to be in there is. It is logically constructed with all degrees of men and women represented. Unfortunately because it’s based on truth, it is completely predictable but Morgan has written a script that the actors can do something with. Director Sarah Gavron keeps everything within the realm of believability, time frame, and shifting attitudes. She gives the actors the space they need.
    Carey Mulligan play Maud Watts, a woman who turns 180 degrees. Mulligan is completely convincing. Ben Whitshaw playing Maud’s husband, Sonny, is equally as convincing even though the character doesn’t budge in his position. Helena Bonham Carter plays Edith Ellyn, a woman who has maneuvered her way in this society to get close to what she really wants. Meryl Streep has what amounts to a cameo as Mrs. Pankhurst, the driving force of the suffragette movement. The outstanding performance in this movie is Brenden Gleeson as Inspector Arthur Steed. Gleeson gives us a character who sees both sides but must obey the law. All the performances are excellent and do everything right but we know what they’re going to do or, at best, they only have one way or the other. No third chances.
    I give this movie 2 hiding places out of 4. I don’t think this film could be any better than it is but, if you know about the times, it gets dull.

  • On June 4, 1913, Emily Wilding Davison suffered fatal injuries after stepping out in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby. A militant activist, her gesture – whether or not made in self-sacrifice – galvanised the women’s suffrage movement and brought international awareness to the cause. Suffragette is not her story, nor is it the story of Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), the pioneering activist who appears for all of three minutes to incite her foot soldiers to “Never surrender, never give up the fight!” before disappearing back into the shadows.

    No, Suffragette is about neither of these women, both whom are kept mostly to the periphery. Rather this film, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron, centers on 24-year-old Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), who is a composite of several real-life women. Maud begins as a bystander and, by film’s end, she is a wholly committed pillar of the cause. She is a wife and mother who labours at the laundry where her late mother worked before her. Maud has been working at the laundry part-time beginning at the age of seven and full-time since she was 12. The conditions are brutal and dangerous – the women could get scalded, their fingers crushed, or poisoned by the fumes – and she, along with many others, are subject to the undisguised sexual advances of their boss, Mr. Taylor (Geoff Bell). They get paid less than the men though they work a third more the hours, and the money they earn is controlled by their husbands.

    They have been peacefully campaigning for decades for equality and the right to vote, but they have been continuously ignored. They have no choice now but to be more militant, Pankhurst encourages. “Deeds and sacrifices must be the order of the day,” she declares. As Maud herself later tells Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson), “War is the only language men listen to.” By the time she utters those words, Maud has been imprisoned several times for her involvement in the subversive group’s activities, and each incarceration serves to strengthen her resolve and calcify her indignation. She’s derided for being one of the “filthy Panks,” as the members of the Women’s Social and Political Union are called. She is even shamed by her husband (Ben Whishaw), who himself is jeered at by his co-workers for not keeping his wife in line. The injustices Maud undergoes are many, which may be too much a burden to place on a single character (not to mention a manipulation of audience’s emotions), but Mulligan is exemplary, masterfully charting Maud’s arc from someone unwilling to rock the boat to one determined to fight for the right to be a first-class citizen.

    There are excellent contributions from the behind-the-scenes team. Production designer Alice Normington and costume Jane Petrie meticulously recreate the period’s setting and wardrobe. Gavron maintains a tight rein on the proceedings, striking just the right balance between melodrama and realism. The demonstration scenes are particularly effective as the women find themselves beaten, battered and punched in the bellies for merely voicing their outrage. It’s shocking to watch and even more shocking to reflect upon how recently these events occurred – a mere 103 years ago – and how gender imbalance is still an ongoing issue in all sections of society, whether it be in moviemaking, politics, or everyday workplaces. It should rightfully chill and enrage that, in 2015, voting rights are but a promise for Saudi Arabian women.

    For all its righteous fury, Suffragette feels terribly flat. To be clear, the film is searing and possesses an urgency that ensnares one’s attention. Yet the more events escalate, the less the characters feel like actual women. They become contrivances to the cause, mere symbols instead of flesh and bone human beings.

    An interesting sidenote: the always excellent Helena Bonham Carter, who portrays the fictional Edith Ellyn, is the great-granddaughter of H.H. Asquith, who was Prime Minister during the peak years of the suffrage movement. He opposed the cause.

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  • We might as well start by getting a couple things straight. Suffrage simply means “the right to vote”. It has nothing to do with suffering (unless you want to count… well, we’ll get to that later). One of the words has an “e” in the middle of it and the other refers to voting rights. A woman who fought for the right to vote when suffrage was the purview of men was referred to as a “suffragette” (a derisive term that would never fly in today’s society). Now you might be asking, “what’s the big deal?” (no, not about my little English lesson, but about the issue of suffrage). “Votes for Women” wasn’t just about allowing all responsible adults to have an equal voice in choosing their next councilman, judge or even their next national leader (as important as those things are). There was much more at stake than being allowed to pull a lever in a voting booth. The right to vote meant choosing leaders who would have to pay attention to the needs of all citizens, regardless of gender, and to enact laws that would protect and improve the lives of women in the home, in the workplace and across the broad spectrum of social activity and interaction. It also meant respect, which women only enjoyed to the extent that they minded their own business. Most governments around the world didn’t grant female suffrage until well into the 20th century. The historical drama “Suffragette” (PG-13, 1:46) is about the struggle for women suffrage in Great Britain in 1912, shortly before the beginning of World War I.

    Although it took many “suffragettes” to force changes in voting laws, you may have noticed that the use of the word in this movie’s title is singular. The story of the fight for women suffrage in early 20th century Britain is told through the eyes and the experiences of a young laundress named Maud Watts (previous Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan). Maud obviously has strong, barely-concealed feelings about the way women are treated in her society, the working conditions under which many of them toil and their lack of rights, but she’s no activist. At first victimized when caught in the middle of a suffragette rock-throwing incident, she is gradually and almost accidentally drawn into the movement by her co-worker, Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), and a local pharmacist named Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). When Maud is present for a stinging political defeat and soon after witnesses an inspiring secret appearance by the movement’s real-life godmother, Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), Maud’s all in.

    The conflicts in the streets and in the halls of government quickly start to become very personal for Maud, just as they did for many real-life suffragettes. Attending secret meetings of the suffragettes, she finds herself in the middle of arguments over tactics and strategies, as well as under the threat of arrest, as the group becomes more militant. She’s also caught between the group and the authorities who (in the person of Brendan Gleeson’s character) think her to be a weak link in the suffragette chain and try to force her to turn informant. As with the other suffragettes, Maud’s commitment to the cause also has implications on the job – and in her home, where Maud’s husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), finds himself torn between his love for his wife and overwhelming social pressures to “deal with” her as she aligns herself with the suffragettes. Even Maud’s relationship with her young son is threatened by her role in the movement. This story benefits from Abi Morgan’s excellent script, Sarah Gavron’s sure-handed direction and the outstanding performances of all the main characters, particularly Mulligan’s, which makes us see, understand and feel how much suffragettes suffered for their cause.

    “Suffragette” does for the women suffrage movement what 2014’s “Selma” did for the American civil rights movement – brings it to life, by way of quality cinematic entertainment. Much like the earlier fight to abolish slavery, the later struggle for civil rights or the more recent issue of LGBT rights, taking a look back at what it took to get women the right to vote reminds us that attaining social justice for all members of society takes time, effort, patience and sacrifice and it’s rarely pretty, but a fight on the side of right eventually triumphs. “Suffragette” communicates that principle very clearly and in very entertaining fashion – both in the context of this story’s specific issues shown and in the broader context of the ongoing struggle for equal rights by different groups of people in different countries all around the world. This film isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it’s a very well-made and worthwhile look at a very important time in world history, and with important implications for the world as we know it. “A-“

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