by JULIA CLARKE
dir. Sarah Gavron
In an ill-advised effort to promote Suffragette, Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan wore t-shirts that said “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” — a line from Emmeline Pankhurst’s 1913 speech that, clearly, it’s best to forget rather than flaunt. I was immediately reminded of Patricia Arquette’s cringe-worthy Oscar speech dismissing the race problem in favor of women getting equal pay in Hollywood. Just because you’re teaming up for one movement doesn’t mean you need to dismiss another. Suffragette brings up a major problem with revolution, though: it’s hard to fight for everything at once.
East London in 1912 was pretty rough. Director Sarah Gavron depicts an atmosphere that’s grey and gritty: mysterious liquids pool on cobblestone streets, sunless skies drape over poorly maintained buildings, and smog infiltrates every corner. The narrative of Suffragette centers upon Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), who works unbearably long hours in a laundry facility earning very little pay and daily risking her health due to the chemical fumes inhaled, somewhat ironically, in the name of cleanliness. Maud wants to be “respectable,” a euphemism for doing exactly what any man says without question.
Things shake up when Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), Maud’s co-worker and an unapologetic suffragette, wants to give a testimony to Parliament but can’t because she’s been battered, undoubtedly by her husband. Maud’s introduction into the suffragette movement, then, comes quite by accident: she is there to support her co-worker and winds up giving her own testimony, which, as is the case in most power-of-the-human-spirit films, lights a fire within that manifests in numerous teary, conviction-laden speeches about how women and men deserve the same rights.
What’s interesting about Suffragette is that it poses questions about the nature of social change. This is not just a film about votes for women; it’s a film about the complicated nuances of revolution. Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep) the leader of the votes for women movement in England at the turn of the century, encouraged “deeds, not words” in order to get the point across because, she argued, words historically proved futile, at least in the case of the women’s movement. Suffragettes in London at this time would throw bricks in windows, fashion small explosives and commit to hunger strikes in order to get their message out: actions Pankhurst insisted would get the vote.
In one particularly arresting scene, Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), a pharmacist who is the most adamant about the “deeds, not words” aspect of the women’s suffrage movement, wants to bomb a politician’s house that is supposedly empty.
Edith’s husband urges her not to go to such lengths, and Violet, newly pregnant, says it is too far. The explosion goes off without harming anyone, but the women find out later that a maid had come back for her gloves, and had she come back two minutes earlier, she would have died. “We break windows; we burn things; because war’s the only language men listen to” Maud tells Steed (Brendan Gleeson), an officer out to stop the group. I’m not into violence, but I saw her point.
A part of me felt the inevitable guilt one feels when watching a film about how much worse the world was for women back in the day, but the story also deliberately points to unresolved issues of equality now. It doesn’t end in a celebratory mood: the climax involves one of the suffragettes throwing herself in front of a horse at a highly publicized race and becoming the martyr for the movement, a move that, the movie argues, is the only means for change.
The grim reality is that violence did work to get the vote, but it didn’t work to make the world fair. There are a lot of things that confirm there’s still a pretty strong patriarchy, at least in my American life: Ryan Adams smugly covering Taylor Swift, the movie Pixels, everyone applauding Amy Schumer’s feminism when all she talks about is how she’s fat, that guy mansplaining the Biblical apocalypse to me at a party (he actually got it wrong), the fact that I have to lean in, the fact that I really do feel uncomfortable talking about my period, catcalls. It’s a hard road.
“Sister Suffragette” — the song Mrs. Banks sings at the beginning of Disney’s Mary Poppins — is the song, for better or worse, that I found ringing in the back of my head as I watched Suffragette. Mrs. Banks cares nothing for her wifely duties; instead, she’s interested in the pomp and circumstance of fighting for a cause, and the song she sings about it is pretty silly (as, I suppose we are supposed to think, is Mrs. Banks). “You should have been there!” she squeals at the maid, because incarceration is apparently a gas. “Take heart, for Mrs. Pankhurst has been cast in irons again!” she belts, shimmying on her carpeted stairs.
The song is cute, as is its interpretation of the cause. Meaningfully, Mrs. Banks provides the suffragette sash to serve as a tail for the kite the Banks children fly in the closing scene. Though Mary Poppins came out some decades after women’s suffrage in Britain, it nonetheless reinforces the idea that though women can vote, they really ought to stay at home.
Julia Clarke is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan.
“I Do What I Love” – Ellie Goulding (mp3)