Melodramatic yet engaging, this period piece is both a lesson in oft-overlooked history and a case study on domestic terrorism
The first thing to get smashed in Suffragette is their misconceived Mary Poppins image as tea-sipping socialites. Barely a few minutes in, angry activists yell slogans and break high street shop windows, showing that this film aims to set the record straight, a portrait of the struggle in all its grit.
Set in 1912, the movie documents the struggle through the fictitious Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) as she goes from laundress to firebrand, visiting key points along the way. She testifies before parliament,
meets Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep in a far-too-brief cameo), gets force-fed in jail, even bombs the prime minister’s country house. Morgan and Gavron wisely let the scenes speak for themselves, sometimes slipping into Spielberg territory but generally true to the record.
Anatomy of an extremist
Particularly intriguing is how the dynamics of radicalization are shown. Initially reluctant, Maud increasingly identifies with the cause as she’s ostracized by society, unable to return to the way things were and finding solace in a fight that gives her life meaning. This is astutely portrayed in the scenes with Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), a paternal – some would say paternalistic – special branch detective who tries to get Maud to turn informant. An Irishman who previously spied on the Fenians, he’s seen this all before: “I know you,” he says, “I grew up around girls like you.” He feels Maud and other working-class women are being exploited by social betters too posh to dirty their own hands: mere instruments, as blunt as the cobblestones they hurl. Once she loses custody of her son though, she’s got nothing left but the struggle. Fully transformed into a hardened soldier even as the struggle turns increasingly desperate.
Heroes and Villains
In the end, the double duty of entertainment and accuracy weakens the message. Retelling complex history through a relatable composite character might be compelling, but it dilutes credibility. Conversely, the brave choice to unflinchingly portray escalating extremism makes it that much harder to lionize the heroines – it’s like cheering on militants. The climactic turning point – Emily Davison’s martyrdom at the Epsom Derby – only reinforces the awkwardness: her very public death finally sways public opinion like nothing else – a martyr for the cause.
Suffragette shows how far society has come and still needs to go. To drive the point home, a scrolling list at the end cites the years various countries granted women suffrage. Austria: 1919; the United States: 1920; the UK: 1928; Switzerland: 1971; Saudi Arabia: 2015 (pending). Deeds not words.