“Suffragette” Is Less Than Revolutionary

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Before attending an advance screening of Suffragette, I saw a fair amount of press surrounding the poster for the film. It features Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep facing forward, their stares cemented into what can only be called a fighting face–they want to prove something, and so does this movie. Instead of realizing this goal, though, Suffragette drags its cache of main characters — which does not really include Streep at all — through a series of generalized Very Special Movie plot points that results in a fairly unaffecting film until the final few minutes of explanatory text.

But let’s start at the beginning. Mulligan’s fictional Maud Watts is living a physically demanding life in a working class section of London during the surge of the suffrage movement in Great Britain. Maud and her husband Sonny (Ben Wishaw) work in the laundry to support their toddler, with whom Mulligan shares a handful of poignant scenes. Maud’s life is defined by work — she began at the laundry when she was fourteen — until one day on her way home she sees a suffragette on a soap box. She becomes friends with fellow laundress and devotee to the movement Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), whose fervent belief inspires Watts — slowly but surely — to become an avid suffragette herself.

Despite not having a spot on the aforementioned poster, Duff’s character and performance is riveting. She is a working woman with many children who wears her title as a suffragette proudly despite the taunts of her neighbors and a physically abusive home life.  Maud grows close with her, as Violet is essentially the foot soldier who acclimates Maud to the activist lifestyle: Violet pushes her to speak about her experiences publicly, stands by her when they are disrespected at work and in the neighborhood, and eventually helps her find a place to stay when Sonny throws her out of the house.

Though Bonham Carter’s Edith is interesting as she maintains the high status of a physician with a loving husband despite her numerous prison stints for the cause, ultimately Violet is who I wish the movie was really about. Though Duff’s performance is exceptional and quite large — she probably had the most amount of screen time after Mulligan — she is still a secondary character. While I was watching, I wondered why a movie could not be made about such a steadfast woman as Violet.  Does her life lack a certain strain of narrative drama? Is she too much an activist and therefore alienating as a character? As a character already entrenched in the work of the suffrage movement, I believe that a focus on Violet would have been much more interesting.

What I mean to say, I suppose, is that I could see all of the obstacles before Watt’s character before they even came at her, while Violet being already entrenched in the work of an the suffrage movement seemed more interesting. Maud’s progression towards becoming active in the movement is thwarted by all the usual suspects–marital issues, general but potent misogyny, and of course, motherhood. She is  kicked out of the house and her son is even adopted by another family to her utter horror, but it was the film’s focus on this dichotomy of activism and motherhood that made me feel the most uneasy.

The movie spends a good amount of time showing Maud following her son, sneaking an outing with him unbeknownst to Sonny, or even just fantasizing about her children and family generally. In a fantastically obvious metaphorical move, Maud is looking at an advertisement for a product employing the visual of the nuclear family in a shop window when a suffragette smashes it with a rock to start a riot. This scene, then, puts becoming an agent of political change in violent opposition to having a family.  Essentially, Suffragette expressed a stance that seemed so much to be about not being able to have both family and stringent political beliefs, a theme I expected the movie could accommodate but also move beyond. I was wrong.

In employing probably about a dozen newspaper clipping montage transitions, Suffragette also doesn’t let you forget that it is Meryl Streep’s photograph fueling the suffrage movement forward. She portrays the non-fictitious leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Emmeline Pankhurst, who for almost all of the movie is on the run from the police. Only in one very meta scene where she addresses her followers from an ornate balcony (Pankhurst herself is decked out in pearls) do you see some actual Streep scene chewing. It’s difficult not to imagine the same thing happening today with Streep simply playing herself, her devotees being made up of a general population of movie-going Americans. Instead of being a clever casting choice, however, it just seems distracting.  You don’t get any sense of the importance of Pankhurst’s character in a historical context — only Streep’s persona fuels interest in this character who appears for so little time.

One interesting facet of the suffrage movement the film does cover, however, is the class difference of the women working in it. Pankhurst is the epitome of progressive upper-class society, while Maud and Violet are solidly working class as illustrated quite gruesomely by their work in the laundry. The difference between the subset of women like Pankhurst working with them is obvious and an interesting distinction for the film to make, but not one that saves it from feeling rote.

Ultimately,  I wasn’t terribly surprised by the film until before the credits rolled and there was a list of when most of the world’s nations granted women the right to vote. It was jarring to see how modern suffrage is for so many parts of the world — Switzerland was surprisingly late to the game, for instance. In short, if you don’t want to see the movie, I highly recommend looking up the statistics of women getting the vote as well as a certain T-shirt design that was released with the movie — it reads ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’, a tone deaf declaration that is unfortunately not out of synch with this less than revolutionary film.

Featured Image Courtesy of telegraph.co.uk

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