Suffragette depicts the struggle to attain voting rights for women in the years before the First World War. The film opens with voice overs informing the audience that women could not possibly have this right due to all sorts of wonderfully absurd reasons and fear of possible future repercussions…like female MP’s. Oh, the humanity! But sadly, this was the thinking at the time and took the likes of the Suffragettes to challenge it.
Our main character is a woman called Maud Watts, who was not a real woman of this time, but, is a fictional one designed to be the audience’s way into the film, someone whose eyes we watch the events of the film through. Being the gateway character for the audience, yet still being an interesting character, can be a tricky thing to pull off, but Carey Mulligan manages to portray a character who won my sympathies early on, both when she was trying to avoid getting caught up in the suffragette movement and then later when she comes to passionately believe in it. The struggles she is faced with over the course of the film are based on historical accounts, such as the breaking up of her family, the loss of her son and her stints in jail. The breakup of her family seems to occur as result of social pressure more than anything else. Admittedly, Maud has, by this point been involved in a few disruptions, one of which took place on the footsteps of Westminster Palace, and has spent a week in jail, but it seems that all it takes to turn a happy marriage into ruins is some distasteful looks from the neighbours and some dickish comments from work colleagues. Maud’s husband is not painted as a character who is venomously opposed to women’s suffrage so much as a man who can’t stand the social embarrassment of having a suffragette for a wife.
The film focuses on the phrase ‘deeds not words’ and depicts the suffragette’s more forceful deeds done in drawing attention to the cause. At the beginning of the film, these deeds are throwing stones through windows but become more extreme, such as putting explosives into post boxes and blowing up the – unoccupied – home of an MP. Despite this, there doesn’t seem to be much time dedicated to debating as to whether these deeds are helping or harming the cause. Certainly the anger of these women is understandable, given their perceived betrayal by the Government who seemingly listening to the arguments around votes for women and then did nothing. But some of the actions taken by the women, most obviously the blowing up of a house, would now be called domestic terrorism. The film has only one scene of consequence when this is discussed by them, and even then the arguments against are pretty much brushed aside.
Another deed shown in the film is the tactic of hunger strikes, and the consequences of them, which was force feeding. Much like the bombs, this tactic was used to get the attention of the wider public, but also to gain sympathy. Force feeding involves pushing a tube up a person’s nose, which is rather unpleasant to experience and as a viewer, it is unpleasant to watch as Maud struggles against her jailers, thrashing her body around and kicking away the trolley of food they intend to force on her. To be honest, though, I can’t help but feel like the film didn’t make this part more disturbing than it is. Emmeline Pankhurst spoke of this in the later years of her life in writings and speeches and said that the thing that still haunted her the most was the sound of the women in other cells screaming as they were being force fed. These sessions are still powerful enough that during one of them, a police officer expresses concern that they could end up turning one of these women into a martyr. It was at that moment I realised they were going to feature Emily Davison in the climax of the film.
There is some debate as to what Davison’s intentions were the day she was trampled by the King’s horse and fatally injured, whether she was trying to attach a pro-suffragette flag to the horse or whether she intended to martyr herself. We will probably never know for certain, but the film decides to take the position that Davison decided to deliberately place herself in the path of the horse in order to very publicly bring attention to the struggle – again, coming back to the theme of deeds not words. I have heard that this action actually stalled the movement in the short time as it actually played into the ideas expressed in the beginning of the film that women were too emotional to have the responsibility to vote – but that’s no way to end a film like this. These types of films have to end on a hopeful note. It ends in a similar manner to Selma, showing the audience footage of the real people the film is about. Here, we see the suffragette’s attending Davison’s funeral in white dress and black sashes. I confess to getting a bit emotional at this, much like I did watching Selma, because when you see the real people, you are reminded that this is not just a film, it’s a bit of history, even if the telling of it is taking a few liberties.
Suffragette is a very straightforward film in the sense that the narrative is not complicated. We move from one event to the other in a linear fashion. The major beats of the film do succeed in getting across why the women are doing what they are doing, but I do wish that it had more nuance to it, especially in terms of the morality of the characters actions. But really it’s about showing the struggle, and reminding people what these women had to endure to get a right my generation now take for granted and hardly even remember that it was a right that had to be fought for. It’s certainly a film that women should watch to be reminded of how important and precious the right to vote is.