Despite being riddled with unnecessary clichés, Suffragette was, overall, an interesting and emotionally charged look at the Women’s Suffrage movement in England during the Edwardian period. The cinematic effects echoed the balancing act of passion and overused plot devices in the script – for instance, the film was devoid of any praise-worthy cinematography, but the music was quite moving. Performances by Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter were remarkable, while the talents of Romola Garai and Meryl Streep were virtually wasted on five-minute roles. Costumes and settings were accurately and nicely done, especially considering the fact that it was the first time commercial filming had happened in the Houses of Parliament. However, a pivotal theme of the inability to wash society clean of its ills – as could have been shown through the laundry workers – was so badly missed in favour of a sad tale, it’s easy to question what the true point of the film was. Suffragette spends more time trying to break our hearts than it does to expose the ugliness of women’s fight for civil rights by focusing on the trials of a fictional character. Without direction under the factual soldiers of women’s rights in history, the movie becomes more about suffering than suffrage. At the end, we are left hanging, wondering what could have become of the suffragettes we have come to know, forced (under the cardinal cinematic sin of a read-along) to learn what the fight for voting rights achieved around the world.
One thing I learned for sure from this film is that a great deal of my childhood was a privileged lie. When I was a toddler – and, admittedly, far into my adolescence – I watched the movie Mary Poppins every day. I heard Mrs. Banks sing to me over and over that, “our daughter’s daughters will adore us, and they’ll sing in grateful chorus: well done! Sister suffragette!” She dressed colourfully and danced without fear, acting as if the battle for women’s rights was little more than a walk in the park with an elegant parasol. Not a scratch or bruise was on her face, and all of her status and safety was maintained throughout her participation in the suffrage movement. Now it is plain to see that this was not the case for the woman that I would have been had I lived at that time – working class, and poor. It is one of my more depressing moments to realise that the destitute are the first to be forgotten, not only by the upper class, but by history itself, and that could have easily been me. Perhaps that is why it disappointed me so much that the film didn’t revolve around a real character, for I’m left with no one to sing, “well done!” to. Damn you, Disney – your censorship got me again!
Another newly acquired piece of information was that of Emily Davison and her martyrdom. Although many know about Inez Milholland and her sacrifices during the American suffrage movement, I did had never learned about the incident at the Epson derby or the subsequent funeral procession. To be honest, I didn’t fully understand martyrdom before this movie. In one of my favourite books, there is a character whom I like to think I emulate, who once said, “Being dead doesn’t help anybody,” in regards to a princess’ suicide. I suppose I always agreed with that – for what can you hope to achieve from a grave? However in this film the sacrifice made by Davison gave a great power to the movement, and ultimately helped the women in their crusade for rights.
The sacrifices made by these characters gave me perhaps the most enlightening yet disheartening moments. The point of much of the plot seemed to be to get us to feel sorry for Maud, such as when she loses her child and home… But I didn’t need those happenings to understand her anger and frustration at being regarded as less than a man. Part of me is irked that the moviemakers felt the need to focus on such things, when other aspects of the story were more compelling and more based on factual people, like when women were beaten and thrown in prison simply for publicly proclaiming their desire to vote. We didn’t need to watch poor Georgie get taken away to agree with Maud when she said to the inspector, “War is the only language you men understand.” Haven’t we all dealt with being ignored? Haven’t we all understood what it’s like to feel left out, and needed to scream loud to be heard?
Another part of me, though, is appreciative (yet sullen) for those moments where sorrow becomes the women fighting for their rights, because it makes me realise that as far as my own character goes, I’m just not up to snuff with the characters in the film. I marched with the quarter of a million women in D.C. the day after the inauguration. I’ve donated to battered women’s shelters. I’ve fought to be heard and appreciated many times in life, and know what it’s like to work in a man’s world, where I’m the only woman in my position at my job, lost in a room full of men who don’t want to listen to me – but would I keep fighting if things were taken away from me? I don’t know. As much as I admire the courage of Maud and Edith I worry I couldn’t be like them. I couldn’t give up my family for a cause, even if that cause was that of women’s rights. The moment my child was taken away from me is the moment my attention would shift closer to home, the greater good forgotten… Perhaps then I’d say what Maud couldn’t keep saying: “I’m not a suffragette.”
This may be the greatest message the film has to offer, one which makes us question our own dedication to whatever we may deem our cause. How far are we willing to go? What makes us successful in the fight? How do we know when we are done?
Maybe that was the point, reflected in the ending that left us wondering what else had happened: we are never done. Adversity will face all of us, and it is up to us to show our true characters in dealing with it. I can only hope in the future, I develop the courage these women portrayed.
Photo credit: Picket banners at Cameron House Hdqters– Lafayette Sq. 1917. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/mnwp000207/. (Accessed February 09, 2017.)