Suffragette, as the title implies, is a film about the Suffragette Movement in Britain. It is set in 1912, almost a decade after Emmeline Pankhurst founded the organisation in 1903. Importantly, this story focuses on the working women’s struggles to obtain suffrage (the right to vote).
The working class aspect is crucial to the plot as it shows the layers of oppression suffered by women at this end of the social spectrum. The main character, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan sporting a cockney accent), is the person who best represents the effects of these injustices. Maud’s journey into and with the Suffragette Movement and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), forms the basic outline of the film. She is therefore the “representative” of others like her and her experiences give us a good idea of what it took for women to eventually be granted the vote in Britain in 1918 (for women over 30) and 1928 (for women over 21).
Maud is a laundress who works under (in more ways than one) the cynical, brutish man Norman Taylor (Geoff Bell). Her long, physically demanding days are endured by her mother before her and look likely to continue in the lives of other women’s daughters. The only respite for Maud from Taylor’s viciousness comes at a price, one the viewer is horrified to learn comes with the unspoken sanctioning of Maud’s husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw). When by default Maud appears before Prime Minister Asquith to plead the case of laundresses like herself, we learn that women in the same factory are paid less than men. The petition fails, however, and Maud is drawn further into an increasingly violent organisation.
The action of the film continues to show how legal systems, the police, the patriarchal attitudes of men in the workplace and the home, and even the social ostracism of other women, all work to render women like Maud completely without choice.
Close-up camera work, stirring music and focus on the daily grind for women make this an intensely emotional movie. I strongly identified with Maud and the other subjugated women in the story, admiring them for the sacrifices they made so that decades later I as a woman could benefit from having the vote.
But as Maud’s personal and work life deteriorates as a result of her involvement with the Suffragettes, director Sarah Gavron introduces a sinister side to the women’s activities: violence and the makings of a radical. The Suffragettes post letter bombs and even blow up an empty house belonging to a member of parliament – all aided by the knowledge of chemist Edith Ellen (Helena Bonham Carter). With nothing left to lose (at this stage Maud has lost her family, her job and her reputation), it is easy to see how Maud could have turned to Pankhurst’s organisation as a substitute. Gavron allows the viewer to doubt the questionable side of public hostility and I even found myself wondering: Would I be prepared to give up everything to win this fight? Would I turn to violence to make my point heard? Would I be guilty of dismissing the women’s grievances as those of radicals unlike myself?
Whilst this film does not claim historical correctness, Gavron does an excellent job of crafting a balanced production. She portrays an important part of our history from the working class perspective, as well as the unpleasant aspects of defiance.
Suffragette opens at Cinema Nouveau in South Africa on Friday 15 January 2016. It comes highly recommended.
Watch the trailer here: