Suffragette is a film that promises so much in its intentions yet in the end ultimately falls flat of doing its socio-political premise justice. An attempted ode to the sacrifices of the women who came before us, director Sarah Gavron intended a film that peers back into the past to inevitably re-examine our present and impending future. Disappointingly, it barely delves into the inner workings of its political movement, opting instead for an admittedly sympathetic ‘everywoman’ protagonist as entry-point to its feminist content. With a whitewashed cast and a failure to critically examine its own protagonist’s place within the movement, it’s also a film that may fail to speak to many women despite occasional compelling moments and appealing cinematography.
Gavron introduces us to the world of 1910s Britain through the eyes of protagonist Maud (Carey Mulligan). She’s a working-class woman who is employed at the same laundry as her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw), with whom she has a young son. A shocking altercation between suffragettes and police on the street triggers a chance encounter with her laundry co-worker Violet (Ann-Marie Duff). From here, their eventual friendship introduces her to other suffragettes, played by Helena Bonham Carter, Romola Garai and Natalie Press. In the narrative’s background lurk a group of policemen conducting surveillance on the women and attempting to quash further protests. Brendan Gleeson plays the film’s half-hearted antagonist, a police detective who sympathises vaguely with Maud but must condemn the suffragettes’ violent revolutionary tactics. It becomes increasingly clear that Maud’s newfound activist spirit is not without its consequences, as tensions grow at home and put her family, marriage and employment at risk.
Suffragette opts for the approach of accessibility in using an ‘everywoman’. Perhaps it’s this strategy that subsequently has led to the film’s limited exploration of the movement’s actual inner workings. The plot tracks Maud’s gradual association with and then involvement in the suffrage cause, but it fails to acknowledge well-known class tensions within the movement, for example: Maud being cautioned by Gleeson’s policeman character seems to be the only acknowledgement of her position as a working-class woman within the movement, and the potential implications. Add to this the lack of diverse casting. Many, notably including Gavron herself, have fallen back on the tired argument of ‘historical accuracy’ to justify it. As usual, it’s not enough. Rather, it’s an alienating and exclusionary move, given the existence of at least one prominent suffragette of colour at the time. With these in mind, despite the film’s contemporary nature, it fails to have the kind of intersectionality we need. What good is a feminist film when it speaks to only to a narrow set of experiences?
This is not to say the film doesn’t have its compelling moments. The on-screen depiction of police brutality is vital to the story of the suffragettes, who adopted more violent tactics out of necessity. Here, cinematographer Eduard Grau (A Single Man, The Gift) allows his handheld camerawork to shine – the jostle and panic, the desperation of moments in protest, the suffragettes against the police, captured well. It’s a welcome change from the otherwise comfortable, period-piece feel that the film, washed in blues and browns, maintains throughout. Though Grau’s eye constructs a kind of internal framing within static shots – Maud at home with her husband and child – to represent the feeling of entrapment that existed even at home. This, one of the film’s thematic threads, proves to be its most tightly woven and taut with tension. In a film that doesn’t dig into the details of its portrayed political movement, nor develops its ensemble of supporting characters, this rings the truest. Suffrage was one singular part of women’s emancipation, but the film paints a broader picture of their oppression, which infiltrates every facet of society from the law, to the workplace, to the private home. Gavron does not hesitate to juxtapose loving domestic scenes with Maud’s abandonment by her husband. (A sharp contrast to Edith Ellyn and her ally husband.) She does not hesitate to make clear the personal costs that accompany the fight for equality.
At large, however, the film feels like a somewhat superficial treatment of its overall premise. It follows its protagonist’s journey into activism, but even the women who surround Maud appear to be more or less two-dimensional figures playing specific roles in Maud’s life. Bonham Carter’s Edith Ellyn serves her purpose as the infallible, tireless local chapter leader, Ann-Marie Duff the friend who introduces Maud to the movement. Suffragette doesn’t capitalise on its chance to explore its female friendships, or to demonstrate the experiences the women share and how, despite being failed by society and often by loved ones, they stand in solidarity with each other.1 Gavron never really ventures into the lives of the other women – perhaps a result of having gone the route that zeroed in on her protagonist. Instead, the film plays connect-the-plot-dots in following Maud’s journey into activism, but fails to exploit its opportunities for emotional resonance. With its narrative focus on outward threats and their actual contentious campaigning tactics, Suffragette sacrifices a potentially thought-provoking look at the lives and emotions of the suffragettes themselves.
Around the Staff