‘Suffragette’ was not a film I particularly wanted to see. I went as part of a history school trip, but as it was after school, full price and technically unauthorised, it was more me feeling obligated to go to the cinema with my teacher and 4 other equally unsure students. Also, it was raining really hard which didn’t improve my mood. I truly thought I was going to hate this film. I didn’t, though.
In the days before I saw this film the press surrounding it had been… unsavoury. It’s premiere was overshadowed by women seeking to highlight the horrendous suffering of women who face domestic abuse. It’s publicity campaign was ill-advised at best, it’s white stars modelling tops with the phrase ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’. I was geared up to see a film that while depicting a women held up as amongst history’s most courageous, who I’ve been told time and time again I owe so much, I wouldn’t truly connect with. ‘Suffragette’ proved me wrong, offering up an emotional, intense and gripping portrayal of one group of women which made me truly appreciate their activism.
‘Suffragette’ is not only about women, it is the product of women. Directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan, the story told from a woman’s point of view and I think many of the choices made need to be seen through that. The lead, Maud (Carey Mulligan) is a working class woman and survivor of sexual abuse from her boss. She works tirelessly in a laundry which is debilitating to her health and unsafe and has done since she was just a child – she was born even there. At the film’s beginning, she is not a suffragette. This was the striking reality for so many women at the beginning of the 20th century and the close up, boxed in, quick paced direction captures the harsh oppression of that life. A story about a working class mother who through “acts, not deeds” learns to empower herself is undeniably inspiring and important. It’s also necessarily tragic and the film doesn’t shy away from the horrors of simply being a woman at that time. These horrors are expressed both explicitly and lurk under the surface; the sinister quality that all the male characters possess subtly suggests the fear of violence that pervaded.
To tell this story through the eyes of a initially disconnected (and fictional) woman was a good choice; while Maud is a white woman, as are all the other women in the film, this made the Suffragettes look less elitist to me, a girl whose only real knowledge about these women was of Emmeline Pankhurst (who stood as a Tory MP), and who harps on endlessly about representation in film. I’m tired of the ‘historical accuracy’ excuse for not including people of colour in films and this was used by Gavron to defend the white cast she used. It’s true that Gavron and Morgan chose to tell the story of a specific group of suffragettes and never claimed for this film to be indicative of the movement as a whole, which included Indian women. However I wonder whether if these women, particularly Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, had been included, it would have looked like the film-makers were using women of colour as an accessory to the white woman’s story. Selecting British Women’s Suffrage as a narrative is to select white history and I think this issue is one which goes deeper than the representation of ‘Suffragette’ itself.
Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst is point-blank terrible – it seems like sacrilege to say it was poorly acted but it’s true and her 90 seconds of screen time just felt like 2015 Meryl Streep wandered into London’s East End, 1912. However, I think ‘Suffragette’ works incredibly well. It’s creatively directed and is a clear passion project for so many of the women involved. It made me feel more gratitude towards the Suffragettes than I ever had before.
By Ashley Woodvine
Ashley is a 17 year old from Norwich. She loves Belle and Sebastian, Taylor Swift, dancing badly and porridge, mostly. Her favourite films include Frances Ha, The Royal Tenenbaums and Beasts of the Southern Wild. She has a very deep affinity with that bit in Inside Llewyn Davis where he stares at toilet wall graffiti that says ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING?’. Tends to tweet about her life in an over-dramatic way @heartswellss.