Film Review: Suffragette

Voting – it’s not just for men.

That’s not new knowledge, but faced with a visual depiction of what it originally took to win women the vote, I was reminded how I take my ability to vote for granted. In fact, every time I talk to another woman who has just seen the film Suffragettethey say the exact same thing. While the woman’s suffrage movement is briefly addressed in our high school history courses, for the most part, it is a period of history that remains largely unknown. Sitting in the theater, I was embarrassed to acknowledge how little I knew of this significant part of my heritage. Simultaneously, though, I can’t quite describe how it felt to experience a film where at any given moment the screen was predominately filled with female characters. We are so accustomed to going to films made by men about men, that encountering the opposite felt markedly refreshing. Suffragette clearly passed the Bechdel Test

What I think made the film so successful is that instead of trying to address the entire suffragette movement, the filmmakers focused on a particular significant instant in the movement and the events surrounding it. The film is just a glimpse into the era, within a particular space and time: working class London in the late 19th/early 20th century. Within that framework, the crew invested in a high attention to detail, fully immersing their audience in a new unfamiliar world through the production design, cinematography and acting. The performances in particular were exceptional from the obvious, Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan, to the unexpected, the little boy who plays Carey Mulligan’s son. (Apparently this is the year of incredible child performances in cinema.)

I also really appreciated the two lenses they used to explore the suffragette movement in the UK. The first was the lens of the working class, the foot soldiers of Emmeline Pankhurst’s movement. When the story of woman’s suffrage is told, it’s often centered on the upper/middle class leaders of the movement, such as in films like Iron Jawed Angels and the TV mini-series Shoulder to Shoulder. This provided a completely different perspective and raised some interesting questions about the ways in which the leadership utilized the women of the movement–often evading imprisonment while lower class women with more at stake (they worked to support their families) would get picked up by the police because they were the ones on the frontline.

Public Domain through Library of Congress
Public Domain through Library of Congress

The second lens I enjoyed was their focus on the role of media in the suffragette movement’s success. Photography was just entering the public realm at the turn of the century, and it plays a prominent role throughout the film. At the screening and Q&A for the film I attended, producer Alison Owen compared this dynamic between photography and women’s suffrage to the more contemporary relationship between the Arab Spring and Twitter. Both movements were integrally shaped by the presence of a newly developed technology.

Though this film is about women, director Sarah Gavron did also consider the men in the lives of these suffragettes, presenting them for the most part in some complexity. Edith Ellyn’s (Helena Bonham Carter) husband supports her career as a pharmacist and provides the getaway car when the women commit their acts of civil unrest, but he is mostly silent and at one point actively resists Ellyn’s involvement due to her health. Alice Haughton’s (Romola Garai) husband lets her “play at being a suffragette” but refuses to support her and will not let her invest her own money in the cause. Maud Watts’ (Carey Mulligan) husband seems to genuinely love her, but he can’t escape his commitment to societal expectations meaning that he can’t take her seriously and would rather sacrifice her for the sake of his societal respect. For many of the other characters in the film, their husbands are entirely absent. Most of these characters are based on true events or composites of true events, but I was disappointed that we did not see any pictures of men who passionately fought for women’s suffrage. Though there may not have been many, I’d be surprised if there weren’t any. Instead, the men in the film largely seem disappointing and uninteresting. While this is the way women have been portrayed in film for decades, it seems unfair and unimaginative to simply “reverse” the situation. Interesting male characters don’t need to steal the show from the women, but it would be nice to have them present and not silenced.

That being said, this area of history is largely absent in our cultural collective memory, and the crew (who was over 50% female) did their due diligence with what little resources were available to try to provide as faithful a dramatic representation as possible. In fact, the final scene of the film is rare historical footage that the crew discovered and paid substantially to have developed–even though no one was sure if the negative even had any relevant footage on it. I am grateful for their hard work to provide a cinematic experience that would enter the mainstream and remind audiences across the world about what it actually took to win women the vote. To this day, there are countries in which women remain legally silenced by the men in their lives, unable to participate in the political future of their families and communities. As an immigrant, I tend to think in terms of my general privileged right as a U.S. citizen, but this film reminded me that my privilege is doubly valuable–as a U.S. female citizen who can vote.

Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst
Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst

Media Cited:
I saw the film last Thursday at the Film Independent event at LACMA with my friend Justine. The screening was followed by a Q&A with producer Alison Owen, so much of the information included below comes from that conversation.
This week’s featured image is a screenshot from the film Suffragette.

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