“Suffragette” was one of my most anticipated releases of the year. I felt chills when I saw the trailer showing the hardships and extolling the tenacity of the women who fought for the vote in early 20th-century England. And I was excited that a film would provide a glimpse of verbal powerhouse Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep), who irrevocably changed the vernacular of the woman’s movement.
Yet in the end, “Suffragette” offered little more than a highlight reel focusing on a few momentous events in an isolated way, serving up one militant part of enfranchisement history while ignoring how modern audiences might benefit from knowing more of the background and context.
Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) has worked at an East End laundry her entire life. Indeed, the place overshadows her whole life: She was actually born there; her husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), is also employed there; and they live not far from its grime and steam. Smart and diligent enough to have worked up to the job of forewoman, Maud is well-respected amongst the female workers, but we sense her position has come at a cost. The leers and advances of her foreman give us a telling glimpse into Maud’s past and her probable future.
At home, Maud lives in near-poverty with Sonny and their young son, George. Each morning she puts her son into care as she and Sonny go to work. Each night she falls exhaustedly into bed after working a long day, before waking up to repeat the same routine.
A few instances early in the film steer Maud’s course for its remainder. Given a rare opportunity to run an errand for her boss, Maud boards a streetcar, travels to the West End, and daydreams about a trip to the beach with her family while staring at mannequins in a window display. Her reverie is interrupted by stones smashing into the window. They were thrown by Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), also from the laundry, wife to a physically abusive husband and mother to several children—including young Maggie (Grace Stottor), whose pretty face and innocent demeanor have caught the foreman’s eye.
Another pivotal moment occurs when upper-class Alice Haughton (Romola Garai) entreats Violet to testify before Parliament, convincing her that Cabinet Minister David Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller) will be hearing the stories of working women with the intention of accumulating them for the King in hopes of passing the Suffrage bill. Against Sonny’s wishes, Maud attends the assembly and is pressed into speaking, timidly offering glimpses into the startling inequality between women and men. Maud’s testimony combines the reality of working life and her burgeoning belief in a better life, but also becomes the only true glimpse we get of Maud’s reason for her future actions with the suffrage movement.
From there, Maud becomes more involved with women who are dedicated to change. Violet is finished with doing what men tell her and believes that “war is the only language men listen to.” Emily Davison (Natalie Press), an actual historical figure who was a longtime follower of Pankhurst, is desperate for one moment to give the cause exposure. Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), a pharmacist who works in a local chemist’s shop run by her husband (Finbar Lynch), is the center of the Women’s Political and Social Union, to which Maud and her new friends subscribe. Edith’s husband provides nearly the only example of compassion from a man in this film: He is supportive of his wife’s cause, undeterred by the fact that she is better educated than he is, and concerned for her welfare as she dabbles in explosives and dangerous exhibitions. He provides a much-needed counterbalance to Steed (Brendan Gleason), an inspector who, though conflicted over the barbaric treatment of women imprisoned for the cause, would like to see the movement dissolved, and Sonny, who eventually washes his hands of Maud and her new associations altogether to keep the respect of those in the neighborhood and at the laundry.
But after the inevitable refusal of the proposed bill and notwithstanding David Lloyd George’s optimistic response to Maud’s testimony, the movie plods along, substituting snapshots of violence, vandalism, and cameos of historical personages for solid storytelling. Maud’s passion for the movement, so quickly stirred, threatens her job and her family life as she is influenced by portentous alignment with forceful characters and thrust into actions spurred by coincidental meetings.
In short, this alleged history of an important movement offers little more than violence and the vilification of men. While historically the militant aspect of the suffragette movement was born of decades rallying against deaf ears and closed doors, “Suffragette” narrowly focuses on Maud’s new belief that war is the language of men, and thus this is the only language the film speaks.
The effects of the suffragette movement and the mistreatment that launched it still ripple through our society today, and it is important that we recognize its militant undercurrents. The cycle of violence was very real: Some of these women did use bombings and arson and vandalism to make their point, and then went on to be jailed and beaten and force-fed during their prison tenure. But if we paint the suffragette movement in only one color, without providing a much-needed historical context and a look at the more cerebral suffragists who used their mighty pens to influence the world in different ways, we lose out. And if our champions are painted as merely the female antidote to a world run by horrible unsympathetic men, we do the movement, its members, and its influences a great disservice. One can hope that the film will at least inspire viewers to read more about the people and events featured here, but there is always the possibility that this may be the only window many viewers have on these world-changing times. With this in mind, the film should have lived up to its subject’s great potential.
I kept wondering what the same film might have been like if it had been told from the viewpoint of Emily Davison, one of the most remembered faces of the movement, whose great sacrifice at the Epsom Derby led to a legacy that divided public opinion on the world stage and drew much-needed attention to the cause. Or if the film (as the marketing campaign suggests) spent more time on the life of Emmeline Pankhurst, whose call to action and stalwart conviction inspired generations of women.
In particular, Pankhurst’s call for “deeds, not words” could have given rise to an examination of the religious aspects of the women’s movement. Such calls, after all, are familiar to Christians. “Preach the gospel,” St Frances of Assissi entreats us. “If necessary, use words.” But in “Suffragette,” the deeds overshadow the words, the bombings and smashed windows coming across as little more than violent retaliation without context. There’s no place here for the intelligent dialogue of generations of women who fought in the political and ideological realm, and both the movie and its viewers are immeasurably poorer for it.
Image copyright Focus Features.