Director Sarah Gavron Producers Faye Ward, Alison Owen Screenwriter Abi Morgan Starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Meryl Streep Country Of Origin UK 2015 Running Time 106 mins UK distribution Pathé UK
It’s October 2015, and Abi Morgan and Sarah Gavron’s meticulously constructed period film on the suffragette movement in England seen through the wide eyes of factory worker Maud (Carey Mulligan) has just premiered at the London Film Festival. This film was a long time coming. About 100 years or so.
The film (read the ScreenRelish review here), starring probably the most likeable British actress around at this time as the unchallenging lead, and the seal of credibility Meryl Streep as movement founder Emmeline Pankhurst who has less than five minutes of screen time, will most definitely wipe the box office clean, secure widespread international distribution and go on the average Brit’s shelf inbetween THE KINGS SPEECH and THE IRON LADY (script also by Morgan). It is, as previously mentioned, meticulously production designed by Alice Normington with grainy London workshop colours, poverty-line bleakness contrasting with the violet and green of the bright WSPU (The Women’s Social and Political Union) meetings that inspire hope. Mulligan has our hearts from the outset and carries every travesty thrown at her – from threats and memories of sexual abuse to being fired to incarceration and force feeding and having her gorgeous little boy taken away from her – with brave believability. It seems undeniable at this point that AN EDUCATION proclaimed her as being the face of the enlightened innocent emerging into a brighter future and consequently she slips into this role as if she was born for it.
But herein lies the problem: SUFFRAGETTE is all perfection and no progressiveness. Although it does dramatise violent historical moments such as the ongoing police brutality against their (initially) peaceful protests and the famous Epsom Derby tragedy when Emily Davison (played by Natalie Press) stepped out in front of the King’s horse and gave the suffragette movement the martyr it needed to gain worldwide recognition, the narrative choice to side-line the Pankhursts and centre a made-up, likeable factory girl disregards a crucial characterisation of the movement. The controversy, questionable violence and internal fracturing between suffragettes – especially where allegiance to Emmeline Pankhurst was concerned – is massively diluted by both the casting choices and textbook-like script. If SUFFRAGETTE is the only “big” film to ever be made about the women who risked everything so that future generations of women might have their voices heard and recognised in parliament, what does limiting its capacity for controversy say about how we view the legacy of the movement now?
It’s no wonder the premier on Wednesday 7th October was stormed by over a hundred protestors from Sisters Uncut – campaigners for the end to violence against women – sporting banners and signs that read ‘DEAD WOMEN CAN’T VOTE.’ They weren’t only using the high-profile, widely covered and star studded event as an opportunity to centre their cause in the eyes of the media, but also to remind everyone that the battle for equality of the sexes is ongoing and it is still in need of active soldiers. “There is this delusional element to it all,” said one protestor of Gavron’s film. At a time when two thirds of the people effected by the ongoing implementation of austerity cuts are women, 32 women’s refuges have been shut down since 2010 and two women a week are killed by abusive partners or ex-partners, it’s not hard to sympathise with why these concerns exist in such groups.
This film was written and directed by women, and was the first major big budget film to be made about the suffragettes. Whilst that feels superficially like an achievement, in reality, when it is framed within the tired patriarchal film-industry context and doesn’t acknowledge that the fight is still ongoing – in other words, if organisations like Sisters Uncut are protesting at your event instead of speaking at it – it isn’t doing much for the women’s movement at all.