Suffragette- The Film Feminism Needed

Suffragette is an important movie.  Not just another period drama with Helena Bonham-Carter in a corset, but a film which is moving, punchy and very relevant. The film depicts a small east London collective of suffragettes during a crucial period of the movement and is carried by its brilliant cast.

The plot mainly revolves around Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of Maude Watts who is drawn into the movement by a work mate played by Anne Marie-Duff. Mulligan brings noticeable strength to the role, playing a woman who won’t be worn down by the relentless nature of working class life in Victorian Britain.

sufragette sufragette

Maude describes the pay difference between men and women in the Victorian workhouse, but a pay gap still exists in the present day.

The film also perfectly identifies how the suffragette movement was very much a middle class woman’s game in its early stages. The difference between the two classes is illustrated well through the casting, Marie-Duff and Mulligan appear famished and thin in stark contrast with Helena Bonham-Carter and Romola Garai whose faces are fuller and less gaunt. The film identifies exactly why middle class women were so much more connected with Suffragism they simply had the energy to worry about it. Suffragette shows, importantly, that feminism is a class as well as a sex issue.

The film subtly shows that; while we have come a long way, there is still a massive need for activism in the name of woman’s rights. Maude describes the pay difference between men and women in the Victorian workhouse, but a pay gap still exists in the present day. To Maude, a working class women, the vote is unattainable, what she needs is enough money to live. It shows that women had no power, they were ‘insignificant in the eyes of men’ – to quote Domnhall Gleeson’s inspector character.  But the battle cries of, ‘there is a women in every home’ and, ‘we are half the human race’ ring loud in Suffragette. This film shows is that every woman can be a soldier.

sufragette police

Central to the film’s plot are the actions of the press.  What the movement needs to gain traction is publicity.  No matter what the women do they cannot seem to gain national recognition, (this even includes blowing up an MP’s summer home in a particularly brilliant action sequence). Cameras are present everywhere, filming the women in prison, photographing them in the street and especially at the Royal Derby.  When Emily Wilding Davison throws herself before the king’s horse and falls there is complete silence for a second before you hear the running of an old film camera.  This scene is an amazingly tense denouement to the film as all who know even the littlest bit about the suffragettes know what is about to happen – the movement has a martyr.  Crucially now in an age of citizen journalists we see that the women have no control over how, or how little, they are reported.

 Too often today suffragettes are reduced to plucky “come on girls” type figures.  They were more than that.

Another memorable and horrifying scene takes place in prison when Mulligan’s character is force fed.  The sounds of her choking and screaming echo down the prison halls, demonstrating just how brutal the law was to offending women. Suffragette is an honest film which portrays accurately what the women of the movement went through.  The sisterhood they felt, the punishments they suffered.  The camera style frames this suffering and heroism perfectly.  A shaky hand held format which mirrors archive footage from the time.  Also, in a nice touch at the film’s conclusion, footage from the vigil held for Davison ends the movie.

sufragette the cast

The cast of Suffragette.

You are left with no question that for women to vote they needed to become violent.  A truly inspiring scene featuring Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst says “deeds not words”. Actions undoubtedly speak louder, and today this is where feminism can be said to have fallen astray.  To get change perhaps something has to be broken?  So much the movie mentions can be said to be true today.  All they wanted was the right to vote, a right which today you can throw away.  But that’s the point, now woman have a vote to do with what they wish. The film makes me, as a woman, nothing but thankful for those who choked in prison so I could say I am equal to men.

But am I? Are we? Shockingly we see a list of dates showing when certain countries achieved equal suffrage, New Zealand then Australia then Russia – us- and, gasp, Switzerland in 1971? Saudi Arabia potentially this year?

Suffragette is an Oscar bait movie for its cast and director – Sarah Gavron.  But more than that it’s a movie that we needed, too often today suffragettes are reduced to plucky “come on girls” type figures.  They were more than that.  They were soldiers.

By Delilah Niel

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