This post contains plot spoilers about the 2015 film Suffragette.
On one hand I was very excited to see the 2015 film Suffragette because this is a period of history I have long been fascinated and inspired by. One the other hand I was very nervous to see the film precisely because I know so much about the era - and I was worried that the film industry would either a) over-dramatise things for effect to distort facts, or b) invent one or two things to make the plot more ‘Hollywood’.
I always refer to myself as a supporter of the suffragists rather than the suffragettes. The suffragists (the peaceful ones who campaigned for many decades but rarely made the news) far outnumbered the militant suffragettes (the ones who got the headlines for the few years they were active), and it frustrates me that the law-abiding, peaceful and effective suffragists are so often overlooked than their more sensational sisters. So while it looks unlikely that a film about Millicent Fawcett’s lifelong campaign and petitioning will be made any time soon, Suffragette is the best we’re likely to get for now.
Directed by Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) and written by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady), there is a refreshing volume of women in key production roles here - which is of course very rare when still only about 10% of films released every year are made by women.
The dominance of Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst in the pre-release advertising for Suffragette is baffling considering she’s in the film for fewer than five minutes. Baffling… or a cynical marketing ploy to boost audiences? I would argue it would have been more impressive and significant to have a lesser known actor take the role of Emmeline for this film to avoid it derailing the narrative.
And while I’m normally a fan of Carey Mulligan, I felt her leading performance here as laundry worker Maud was unconvincing, especially when paired alongside the far more effective Anne-Marie Duff (militant worker Violet) and Helena Bonham-Carter (pharmacist and rabble rouser Edith). In fact Helena, whom I normally shy away from, was so good that I’d go far as to say that hers is easily the best performance in Suffragette.
But what about the menz? As hardened Inspector Steed, Brendan Gleeson is impressively cruel and conniving but with just the right amount of doubt in his heart. However, as Maud’s husband Sonny, Ben ‘Paddington Bear’ Wishaw gives the worst performance of his life. We have seen and enjoyed Ben playing all manner of fluffy roles over the years, from Pingu in Nathan Barley, to Q in James Bond and, of course, the new voice of Paddington Bear. So Ben was going to have to whip out the mother of all monsters to convince us as Maud’s tyrannical and cold-hearted husband… and he failed miserably.
Suffragette did not disappoint me for the reasons I had expected. Gavron and Morgan mostly avoided over Hollywood-ising the plot and inventing too much for the name of drama (as if there wasn’t enough drama in the suffrage campaign to start with). Instead I have two other. major issues with the plot.
The first is the cack-handed way in which the entirely implausible plot of Sonny giving up his and Maud’s beloved son George for adoption so quickly, and the tiny fragment of protest that Maud put up which is entirely at odds with the absolute devotion to her son she has shown until this point - the son whom she barely mentions again in the rest of the film. Yes, Morgan wanted to shoehorn in the issue that mothers were denied all legal rights to their children until 1925, but it was dealt with so clumsily and awkwardly that it made very little sense here.
Moreover, the bizarre narrative arc - or rather, lack of a narrative arc - across the entire film was disappointing. We start conventionally enough with Maud’s story, following her as a laundry worker, devoted mother, tired housewife, and we see her neatly fall into a prominent role in the Women’s Social and Political Union with some new and important friends. But then suddenly Emily Wilding Davison appears and her story takes over, and the film ends with Emily’s death under the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby. But what of Maud’s story? What happened to her son? Where did she end up living, as she can’t have stayed in that derelict church for ever? What did she go on to achieve in the WSPU? Her story is never concluded. It is a deeply unsatisfactory ending.
So while I wanted to embrace a film about the campaign for women’s suffrage because we have waited so very long to have one, I feel that Suffragette has fallen short in a huge number of areas. However, the trailer for He Named Me Malala made that film look extremely interesting. And on Monday I will be seeing the BFI’s newly curated strand Make More Noise: Suffragettes In Silent Film, which is a series of 21 original short films from the 1910s that document the suffrage campaign. So there is still hope that an excellent film about women’s history is out there. I will report back.