CINEMA: Suffragette City


Suffragette (2015, Directed by Sarah Gavron, 105 minutes, USA)

LIZ_WIEST_BYLINEBY ELIZABETH WIEST Director Sarah Gavron’s (Brick Lane, This Little Life) latest period piece Suffragette follows four proto-feminist foot soldiers through the smog and grime of nineteenth century London as they stir up a grass roots rebellion demanding women’s right to vote. The centerpiece of the film is a gracefully understated performance by Carey Mulligan as the daring Maud Watts, a factory worker, wife, and mother who becomes increasingly fed up with the indignities of life among Britain’s female proletariat. As her involvement with the burgeoning women’s movement intensifies, she becomes well-acquainted with sacrifice and torment, as the protests escalate and climax in violence, death, and the end of patriarchal control of the political process.

Suffragette depicts Maud Watts’ transformation from the weary and mild-mannerd factory worker to the tough-as-nails feminist revered by history books today. Along the way she loses her husband, her child, and everything she once held dear to her. She is beaten, incarcerated, and force fed, all in the pursuit of the political empowerment of women. Mulligan’s performance anchors the film, as do powerful performances from a diverse ensemble, which includes Anne-Marie Duff as Violet Miller, the rugged housewife who lures Mulligan’s character into the suffragette movement, Helena Bonham Carter as Edith Ellyn, the rebellious intellectual who spearheads the group and holds secret meetings in her husband’s pharmacy, and of course the much-anticipated cameo made by the unforgettable Meryl Streep as Mrs. Pankhurst, the woman who embodied the “radical” values of first-wave feminism in Britain at the time.

The film begins with the drudgery of pre-radicalized Maud’s weary existence. Her marriage to her misogynistic husband is hanging on by a thread, she labors in dangerous conditions at a laundry where she is sexually harassed day in and day out by her chauvinistic boss. The only light in her life is her four year old son, George. One day, as Maud is running errands, she is caught up in a riot lead by Violet Miller and the suffragettes. The women begin throwing rocks in store windows, wreaking havoc and screaming “Votes For Women,” the mantra of the burgeoning feminist movement.

Events escalate when Violet is hired at Maud’s laundry, and promptly refuses to tolerate the boss’s harassment. Violet encourages Maud to come witness her petition Parliament for the right to vote. When Parliament still refuses to uphold their promises to the women, Maud joins the protest only to wind up arrested and beaten by the police for disturbing the peace. After she is jailed for the first time, the pace events in Maud’s life — as well as the film — begins to escalate. In short order, her no-good husband leaves her, her child is taken from her, she is pursued and captured by the police. She goes on a hunger strike and is force-fed by her jailers and threatened with torture unless she gives up her association with the group. Nevertheless, she doesn’t relent. In fact, she raises the stakes.

Following secret orders from Mrs. Pankhurst, Maud, Violet and Ellyn cut telegraph lines and bomb the mailboxes of government and police officials — all men, of course, this is the early 1900s after all. The whole affair essentially turns into a covert cat-and-mouse game between the British police force and the suffragettes. The games continue until someone gets hurt. One of the lesser-known suffragettes, Emily Davison, is trampled to death by one of the King’s horses during a confrontation with the king’s men. Her death and, more specifically, the public outrage it sparks, forces Parliament to reconvene and ultimately grant women the right to vote.

In terms of a contemporary feminist film, Suffragette falls short in some respects. Despite the strong performances and compelling subject matter, the film suffers from a somewhat erratic script that jolts the viewers through various historical milestones at a mile a minute. Some critics decried it for being exclusionary, Eurocentric and preaching to the white western liberal choir. But can we please cut Gavron some slack? Dramatizing first-wave history to a generation of young women who consider feminism anachronistic and unnecessary in this day and age is a nearly impossible feat. And criticizing a film set in Europe for being to Eurocentric is like criticizing the ocean for being too wet.

Suffragette ends with a scrolling list of dates when women around the world got the vote. In some ways it is the most shocking part of the film. Women in Britain weren’t allowed to vote until 1918. Women in America weren’t allowed to vote until 1920, and those are the so-called progressive countries. Nearly a 100 years later, Saudi Arabia and various other countries in the Middle East still refuse to grant their women that very same right. Clearly, the fight isn’t over yet. The first step is raising awareness and bringing attention to the history of the cause. Even if the film won’t be triggering riots or boycotts any time soon, it may just gain Streep and Bonham Carter a few Oscar nods and and Suffragette’s depiction of feminine triumph over patriarchal oppression is just the kind of Oscar bait the Academy can’t resist. You can’t buy that kind of publicity.