Suffragette: Took a Stance, but Not Enough

Tova Seltzer


I went into Monday night’s screening of Suffragette, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron, girding my loins to watch critically--critically because my tendency is to get too caught up in stories to properly judge the technical work, and also because I was aware of ongoing discourse about its lack of diversity in casting. 

In spite of its failures in the latter arena, I don’t think Suffragette failed entirely to shake up my understanding of history. I’ve read a historical novel or two touching on the women’s suffrage movement, and when I call up mental images, the first thing I see is still prim ladies in white gloves standing around with hand-printed signs. Suffragette is not a prim movie in the slightest. It doesn’t shy away from realistic scenes of women being beaten by police and assaulted by their bosses, blowing things up and burning things down, their faces bruised and hair in disarray. Suffragette takes an extremely clear moral stance, maybe excessively so; but the characters are not saints. They are angry and desperate, unsure and afraid. Much more Katniss than society lady. 

I found myself caught up in this movie for the majority of the time. The scenery and mood successfully evoked the time period in a natural way, without seeming costume-y. The drama was consistently high, and didn’t feel overwrought. The characters believed deeply in how high the stakes were, so I believed as well. 

Star Carey Mulligan’s eyes tell stories all by themselves. It’s cheesy, but it’s true. In many of Maud’s most pivotal moments, she doesn’t have much dialogue, which worked to good effect. From her twinkly beams when she first hears suffrage leader Emmeline Pankhurst speak to her heart-twisting incoherent cries at the peak of her troubles, Mulligan’s performance was authentic and praiseworthy. 

Helena Bonham Carter also did a great job as the pharmacist leader of the local suffragette group. Where Mulligan’s character was raw and in transition, Bonham Carter’s was worldly and measured, fiercely optimistic, but braced to play against the system as it stood. Her emotions ran deeper below the surface than Mulligan’s, but that only made them more poignant when they showed themselves. I also enjoyed Anne-Marie Duff as Violet, a harried but persistent mother who talks Maud into getting involved with the movement and gives her a number of earnest workingwoman pep talks along the way. 

Despite being the film’s most iconic star, Meryl Streep was only actually in one brief scene as Emmeline Pankhurst, and her speech from a balcony (and subsequent soul-gazing advice moment with Maud about never giving up) didn’t leave a huge impression on me, but she got the job done. As for the men of the movie, it was evident that the filmmakers were less interested in them. Maud’s husband, played by Ben Whishaw, worked okay as a simplistic young man confused and overwhelmed by the world’s changing tides, but Brendan Gleeson’s character of the anti-suffrage inspector assigned to follow the ladies around could have used more development. At times I got the sense he was supposed to be sort of like Mr. Healy on Orange is the New Black—good-hearted but too jaded to defy the system he’s an arm of. However, his inner life was never really unpacked, and all he really seemed to function as was a spectator, watching along with the audience. 

One of the most interesting moments of Suffragette for me was a scene where a number of the women have been arrested, and the husband of the only wealthy woman among them shows up to bail her out. They’re the only family with the three pounds to spare. The woman is aghast at the prospect of being the only one released, and begs her husband to let her use her own money to pay the bail for the others, but he forbids her. She is led away casting a guilty look over her shoulder. This moment was effective at highlighting class politics the way the film aims to. Without shifting the focus away from the working woman, I would have liked to see more of their interactions with that wealthy friend, and how they all feel about each other in various settings. Do they ever become angry with each other? Are there things the low-status women can do that the high-status one cannot? Social changes they want that she doesn’t think are such a good idea?

Suffragette comes on the heels of the disastrously white-cisgender-man-washed Stonewall, and I expected it was poised to fall into a similar tunnel-visioned pitfall, which in 2015 is inexplicable—or maybe far too explicable—during this new era of social change. The British publication The New Statesman put out an interesting article earlier this month about this question, discussing among other things the prominent involvement of Indian women, and of lesbians, in the British suffrage movement. Even aside from the harm and offense of whitewashing (and straight-washing?), it is disappointing that an artist would pass up on the rich opportunities for representations that are currently so under-engaged in popular media. Audiences today are ready for existing social constructs to be dismantled in Hollywood, and for whatever reasons innocuous or sordid, Suffragette didn’t take advantage. 

En fin, Suffragette was successful at telling the story of a woman struggling to reconcile her family duties with her moral and national ones— and at exploring the intersection between gender, class, and activism. However, for a film so clearly desiring to make a currently relevant political statement (just visit the film’s website if you need evidence), it could have done more to show the connection. It was more exciting than a history textbook, but ultimately, should probably be kept in the classroom. It’s an important story, but failed to show how the history was supposed to reach through the years and join the conversation of today.