Switzerland didn’t do it until 1971: grant women the right to vote. “Impossible!” you say. Well, it’s just one of the astonishing facts revealed in SUFFRAGETTE, a new film about the early struggle of women to win the right to vote. To be heard. To have a say. To be considered worthy of being listened to. To actually wield some power over their own destinies. Don’t get me started.
In SUFFRAGETTE, women run the show on camera and behind the scenes. Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, and three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep star in a script written by Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”) collaborating again with British director Sarah Gavron. In fact, the women’s suffrage movement began in Great Britain around 1890 and picked up momentum at the beginning of the 20th century, ten years before the US granted women the right to vote. And the story told here, though based on real events, was unknown to me, and the mostly female audience with whom I screened it.
The film’s opening moments are set in 1912 England on a busy city street, in broad daylight, full of passersby, when suddenly a woman picks up a rock and pitches it through a shop window. Business as usual is shattered as more and more women– apparently in an organized effort–pick up rocks and throw them. They have been incited to militant action by Emmeline Pankhurst a 45 year-old widow who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). In one brief but powerful scene, Meryl Streep’s Pankhurst makes the case for violence, given that all the peaceful protests over the previous 50 years, had failed to make a dent in the status quo. Now having suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous inequity, the ladies have begun to throw stones at the glass houses of the establishment.
On the street is 24-year old Maud Watts (a composite of several real life characters), a working class laundress, wife, and mother who has been slaving since childhood underpaid, overworked, and sexually violated by her male bosses along with countless other women and children. Carey Mulligan projects the vulnerability and simple grit of a woman who has been toughened by her circumstances, and eventually uses that toughness to stand by her convictions. Gradually Maud is pulled into the suffrage movement at great personal cost, and joins a brilliant chemist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), as they band together to do battle with an increasingly brutal state personified by the politicians who hear them out and do nothing, and the police who target and imprison them.
The film does a great job of conveying the small picture, the claustrophobia of these women’s dreary lives. Tight shots abound in the steamy prison of the laundry, in the actual prison where the demonstrating Suffragettes are thrown, in the smokey interiors of their squalid homes, often with abusive spouses. Ann Marie Duff is tough as nails as Violet Miller who is so beaten up on the morning she is supposed to testify at an official hearing for more equitable treatment, that she cannot speak. In a riveting scene, Violet sits in the back of the room, as Maud, scared to death, speaks in her place. At first intimidated before the august assemblage of politicians including eventual Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Maud’s testimony gains momentum on the fleetness of plain speech and the unadorned truth of the drudgery and desperation of her life, and the lives of women like her.
What the film lacks is a wider lens, context that would have linked these individual women’s lives to the larger cause and what was at stake. We needed to know more about the efforts of the WSPU, and its connection to the network of likeminded women around the country and the world. Perhaps the development of additional characters on the opposing side would have provided much needed texture and dramatic tension. Brendan Gleeson as the punitive police inspector seems little more than a straw man.
Finally, in the movie’s climactic moments, SUFFRAGETTE hits the dramatic jack pot. It is only when actual newsreel footage of thousands of women turning out for a funeral of one of their own, that the film truly resonates, and we understand this pivotal moment. The film concludes with a chronological listing of exactly when various countries around the world granted women the right to vote. This is truly shocking.
SUFFRAGETTE remains a solid, well-acted, accurate, if not wholly successful artistic endeavor. I hope everyone will see the film for the history it documents. Women’s stories must be told, on the big screen, by big stars, to mainstream audiences, to keep the momentum and the conversation going. Our history is gripping, essential, and tells us who we are, all of us–men and women. SUFFRAGETTE does do what all good movies do– help us to understand where we came from, what it took, and how much farther we have to go. Maybe one day the idea of equal pay for equal work will seem as obvious a notion as women having the right to vote. Though in Saudi Arabia in 2015– that is still just a promise.
“The finest eloquence is that which gets things done.”– (1918)David Lloyd George, Prime Minister, England