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October 30, 2015

The British women’s suffrage movement is one of those historical periods I’m surprised doesn’t show up in films more often. I’ve been wracking my memory, trying to think of another movie and the best I can come up with is the bit in Mary Poppins where Mrs. Banks warbles about her compatriot being “carried off to prison, singing and scattering pamphlets all the way”. So, over a century since the suffragettes cranked their fight up to the “Deeds Not Words” level, I guess Suffragette will have to do.

I mean, this is not a subject like the Holocaust, which reliably cranks out three or four new movies a year, slowly moving through various subgenres until the bones of history are picked clean of anything new and interesting to say. There’s a lot of fresh ground here, and — somewhat wisely — Abi Morgan’s script keeps to a very small, localized slice from 1912 to 1913. We do get glimpses of the major player, Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), along with a more local example of a militant leader in pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), based on the real Edith Garrud. Then there are the “foot soldiers” in this war, drawn from all different walks of life. We have the Oxford-educated — and real-life — teacher Emily Davison (Natalie Press), alongside the fictional well-to-do housewife Alice Haughton (Romola Garai) and the East End-poor Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff).

And then there’s Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a long-time washer-woman in the same laundry as Violet, and our audience-surrogate. The story is largely one of her growing awareness of and involvement in the movement, and her Job-like sufferings along the way. Her first contact is getting caught up in the chaos when the Women’s Social and Political Union throw rocks through West End shop windows yelling “votes for women”. She starts to believe that something must change when Violet’s twelve-year-old daughter starts working at the laundry and becomes the new victim of the boss’ systemic rape that Maud herself had endured for the last decade.

Slowly, carefully, Maud is drawn further in. When Violet’s husband beats her on the eve of planned testimony before Parliament, Maud is impressed into service at the last minute. And when that testimony, obviously, turns out merely for show, she is arrested and imprisoned for a week. When it happens a second time, her husband (Ben Whishaw) throws her out in shame, and keeps custody of her son.

Most of our insight into the government’s actions and mindset comes from Steed (Brendan Gleeson), whom we’d probably now call a “counterterrorism expert” working with the Metropolitan Police against the suffragettes after doing the same thing against Fenian agitators in Ireland. The Fenians, incidentally, granted universal suffrage as soon as Ireland gained its independence, so the two struggles are not unrelated. Steed always claims sympathy with the women, but always circles back to an officious “the law is the law”. Still, he does provide us with a running commentary on the police’s tactical response to the WPSU.

The only sympathetic male character is Edith’s husband, who’s mostly an appendage to his wife’s professional and activist undertakings, mostly needed to get around the sorry state of women’s rights at the time. I don’t mean to go all “but what about teh menz” here; the story is the women’s, and the focus rightly belongs on them. But this is not the place to go for nuance. It’s a long litany of abuse and suffering, culminating in martyrdom, after which we fade to archival newsreels and title cards explaining that eventually British women got to vote, but lots more women still can’t. I almost expected a TakePart URL to pop up before the credits rolled.

And it’s important that we remember and understand the horrors that women endured to secure the right to vote, and those that they endured because they lacked it. Morgan does well to tie the suffrage movement to the wider labor movement, as well as to examples of domestic law where women were not “adequately represented by their fathers, brothers, and husbands”.

But coupling a broad view of the situation with a narrow focus on a handful of activists leads to a scattered and staggering plot. We leap from one travesty to the next, with no time for niceties like characterization or context. There are a number of points where the headlong rush from one scene to the next leaves both of them confusingly disjointed.

It also doesn’t help that director Sarah Gavron chooses to shoot and edit the whole thing indiscriminately with the chaotic, handheld style that originated in the worst impulses of action directors. Couple that with grainy 16mm film and a washed-out, smoggy color palette and it can be difficult to make out anything as soon as there’s any significant motion at all. But then it’s not really necessary to have a clean view of a police beating or a child’s abuse as long as you make sure to hold steady on Maud’s face every so often to see her looking upset.

Still, it’s a story that desperately needs to be remembered, and Suffragette is at least memorable. Until another filmmaker tackles the subject, this is the best we’ve got.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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