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  • Articles by Susan

    Film review: Suffragette, Dir. Sarah Gavron

    Not far from where I live (and vote) is Holloway Prison. In fact a friend who lives in sight of the building, and has been in the area for far longer than I, remembers the old women’s prison before modernisations gave it double glazing, and recalls being able to hear the prisoners as they bid each other ‘Goodnight Vi’ and ‘Goodnight Elsie’, calling from one end of the prison to the other. I suppose the names (despite being newly posh) date this memory to somewhere pre-70s, when mature women still went around lumbered with ugly names and uglier hairdos.


    I bring this up because Holloway Prison features in the Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette, and as I watched I found more entertained by mentally ticking off places that I recognised (Lincoln’s Inn, House of Commons, Myddleton Square) than by the story laid out, and because the issue of votes-for-prisoners has been in the press recently.

    Suffragette, much praised since it opened the London Film Festival, is publicised as ‘the turning point in the 100-year-old campaign for Votes for Women’ and it’s a piece of history that although widely known hasn’t been the subject of any previous major film. Even so, I wasn’t overly impressed. It’s an earnest piece of film-making with a decent script and solid acting but it comes across more as a Saturday night TV drama than an exemplar piece of contemporary film making.  This isn’t helped by its interpretation of actual events which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny; raising issues that I suspect the writer (Abi Morgan) and director Gavron had probably glossed over for narrative effect.

    Cleverly centring on a working class heroine, the film veers away from the glamorous top drawer of Pankhursts and their ilk who led the movement and overwhelmingly dominated it (Meryl Streep as Mrs Pankhurst appears only briefly) and tells the story of the foot-soldiers of the Suffragette movement, mainly through the fictional heroine Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) who works in a laundry in Bethnal Green. Her co-worker Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) is a committed suffragist who encourages Maud to join the movement, and the equally fictional but middle class chemist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) who has a penchant for bomb-making acts as the leader of this group. In the course of the story Maud is radicalised and takes increasing risks to secure women’s suffrage, leading to the destruction of her family. Through a series of events she befriends the real-life character Emily Davison (Natalie Press) and is present when Davison is killed by King George V’s horse at Epsom Derby attempting to unfurl a banner demanding women’s suffrage.  

    Mulligan and Duff are splendidly dour and there is a real feel for the hardships of working and domestic life that women like Maud and Violet lived under. The scenes of Maud’s life are some of the best in the film showing the battle in the home and in the workplace to be as important as that on the street. The men who did support the campaign are represented by Edith Ellyn’s husband Hugh who shows enormous compassion for the women suffragists. As such Gavron’s film gives the movement a breadth, vitality and interest that is normally missing from its usual privileged upper and middle class viewpoints.

    But competent film-making that this is it also raises issues that mar the film. As a plot device the working-class angle is illuminating but there are other aspects of the suffragist movement that resonate more keenly with today’s audiences. The issue of radicalisation and of using violence to achieve (even justifiable ends; after all who in the West would now oppose votes for women?) wasn’t dissected in any great detail. Violet’s disengagement with the suffragists on account of Edith’s increasing use of violent tactics was a side-line from the main story and the radicalisation of Maud and was taken as read. In fact the issue of using violence was highly divisive within the suffragist movement and Emmeline Pankhurst called for an end to it during wartime so that all efforts could be concentrated on the war.

    That the film does not mention the war is also a significant narrative error. The trouble with this approach is that the film neatly avoids raising the contention that the actions of the Suffragettes did not lead to women getting the vote and that it was due to women entering the workforce on an unprecedented scale as men went off to fight.  This enormous social revolution, which saw women taking greater control over their own lives and finances, was likely the catalyst for the limited suffrage granted to women in 1918. This is particularly problematic for the film when considering whether the destruction of Maud’s family because of her association with the suffrage movement was actually worth it.

    Another more tangential issue that the film raises is that of the indifference of modern British citizens towards actually voting (although perhaps not Scotland, if the recent independence referendum is anything to go by) with Russell Brand stirring up apathy with his calls of ‘Don’t vote, it only encourages them’. There is a subtext in this film, or there should be, about how seriously we treat politics and politicians and the lengths to which women (and men) in the early 20th century went to in order to achieve (near) universal suffrage.

    Gavron though gives significant emotional punch to the film by ending with the death of Emily Davisonbolstered by archive footage of her funeral through London.  After the rather pedestrian approach to storytelling in Suffragette, this historic footage gives an incredible immediacy to these events, followed as it is by the truly shaming list of dates of women’s suffrage across the world as the credits begin to roll.


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