Above: Suffragettes on the River Thames trying to attract the support of MPs in 1908
By Edward Elliott (Exeter College, 2011)
Films by women, about women, are rare. Films by women, about women, in multiplexes are albino tigers. There is a reason that the Bechdel test, which rates films on whether they contain at least two female characters who talk about something besides a man, is still common knowledge.
However, 2015 has been a year of progress. Patricia Arquette’s rallying cry at this year’s Oscars – “it’s our time for wage equality and equal rights for women” – was a watershed moment of a kind. Films such as Girlhood from France, Girl Walks Home Alone At Night from Iran (by way of the US), and Mad Max from … heaven only knows, have pushed gender boundaries in their own way. This month, Britain’s offering, delivered in the only way the British film industry knows how – a good, old-fashioned historical drama.
Above: A ticket to guarantee entry to the rally in 1908 at Hyde Park
Suffragette opened this Monday at the London Film Festival. Director Sarah Gavron’s period piece, written by Abi Morgan, follows the actions of the Women’s Social and Political Union’s (WSPU) campaign for the extension of franchise. Carey Mulligan’s Maud Watts is a factory washer-woman in 1913’s East End. Working long hours in hazardous conditions, the young mother fosters a relationship with Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), a colleague and an open supporter of Emmeline Pankhurst and the WSPU movement. Through Violet, Maud is introduced to a network of suffragettes pursuing a course of hostile “deeds” in an attempt to force more than just “words” from Asquith’s government – Asquith, Earl of Oxford, former student of Balliol College, and great-grandfather of Helena Bonham-Carter, one of the film’s stars.
Above: The programme, kept at the Bodleian, from a mass suffragette rally in Hyde Park on 21 June 1908
Maud’s increasing activism leads to Inspector Arthur Steed, the eternally gruff Brendon Gleeson. Charged with stopping the suffragettes “at all costs”, Steed imprisons Maud before trying to recruit her as an informant. Rejecting the offer, a cat-and-mouse game of insurgence arises, as the oppressive claws of the state are both exposed and entrenched.
Suffragette does not spare its audience. The black and blue on Maud’s arms are plain to see. A gruesome forced-feeding scene is likely to cause more nightmares than all of this year’s dismal horror films, and prison has rarely seemed more bleak.
As Maud finds, to be labelled a suffragette is to become the scorn of women and the laughing stock of men. Curtains are shut and doors closed. Violet is quickly removed from her job; Romola Garai’s Mrs Haughton risks her marriage. Maud’s climb to militancy is a descent into ostracism, as every section of her social life is torn from her, piece by piece – not by authority, but by those she has laughed, worked and lived with. The fate of all the radicals (and the film only ever portrays them as a minority of voices – a brave choice) is uniformly painful, inflicted by neighbours, friends, husbands.
Above: Over 250,000 people attended this rally, which culminated at 5pm in a great shout, ‘Votes for Women!’
Suffragette’s men deliver an interesting comparison. Sonny, Maud’s husband (the moustachioed Ben Whishaw – soon to be Spectre’s Q), is not the caricatured monster he could have been. Patriotic, taciturn, yet a shrivelling coward, he is a wavering branch in the social breeze. It is not his beliefs but the teasing at work and gossip on the street that turns him against his wife. Steed is equally conflicted. A working class man risen to higher airs, he is aware of Maud’s plight. He takes a class angle on events. He echoes “enforcing the law”. Yet, with each return he cuts less and less conviction, his status as a foot soldier for higher-ups eventually realised – exactly the accusations that he levels at Maud.
Is this historically accurate? It’s certainly dramatised. Maud, (played by Carey Mulligan, right) not to forget, is a fictional character inserted among real figures. She, as a working class woman under the age of 30, would not have received the franchise with the 1918 People Act – an Act influenced by a wide range of political factors alongside the Suffragette movement. Gavron and Morgan, however, appear to have a much more modern message in mind.
Hollywood historian George F. Custen once described historical dramas as “Frankenstein’s monster” – the dead resurrected with the aid of fresher flesh. As Suffragette probes society’s prejudices, it is not hard to see mirrors to the modern era – everyday sexism, prejudice and classicism, gendered expectations, political elitism, even police misconduct and protester mistreatment. “Feminist” is still a dirty word for many, as “suffragette” once was. Scoff as we might, in a hundred years’ time we may be subject to an unflattering depiction as Asquith, Lloyd George and their contemporaries are here.
Suffragette’s willingness to confront these ideas with bloody vigour elevates it above January’s coy Testament Of Youth. But will it draw a crowd? Are uncompromising views worth it if fewer people come to see what you have to say? As an intense and heartfelt film, for Suffragette’s sake, I hope so.
Suffragette opened in UK cinemas on 12th October and is scheduled for US release and elsewhere from 23rd. Produced as joint production by Pathé, Film4 and Ruby Film and directed by Sarah Gavron, it features Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham-Carter.
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All images © Bodleian Library, reproduced with permission, and Shutterstock.