Whilst I relish the opportunity for joint spectatorship at a cinema, I have never enjoyed the post film analysis people seem to engage in the moment the credits roll. Personally, I need time to ruminate upon a film before making any snap decision. Too often, I overhear statements that make me despair. Arriving at the screening for Suffragette the latest effort from writer Abi Morgan I was apprehensive as to the manner in which the film would present the issues of women’s rights and was all too aware that the film may end up placating rather than spurring its audience into action. Unfortunately, my fears appeared to be proven correct when walking out of the screening of Suffragette I overheard the following: ‘it’s amazing isn’t it the struggle women had’.
This emphasis on ‘had’ rather than ‘have’ is not entirely the film’s fault, after all the credits do note that in some areas of the world women are still fighting for female emancipation. Yet if that is the reaction of the viewer then the film is failing not only those women depicted in the film but the women of today too. As a result, I find it necessary to talk about the film itself separately from its political intentions and failings.
Focusing on an East London group of Suffragettes, Suffragette stars Carey Mulligan as Maude Watts, a young woman who becomes politicised through the actions of others around her. Working since she was seven, Maude has found herself continually oppressed by the men around her. She is reminded by her husband (Ben Whishaw) that her role is as a mother and a wife and nothing more. A chance encounter with a violent altercation on the streets, Maude witnesses several suffragettes smashing shop windows as part their mission to act through deeds rather than words. Maude, intrigued, attends parliament in which David Lloyd George has asked various women to offer testimonies in an effort to amend the voting bill. Maude, at the last moment is required to offer her own testimony. Finding her heartfelt account listened to, she is persuaded in believing that she, along with the other women, have had an impact.
Gathering with a crowd of Suffragettes to hear the outcome, she is bitterly disappointed to discover that nothing has changed. The scene turns violent and Maude, witnessing shocking police brutality, finds herself arrested. It is this moment in particular that proves to be a catalyst for Maude, and she soon becomes embroiled with the Suffragette movement, joining Edith Ellyn (a brilliant Helena Bonham Carter reminding us of her capabilities after the wayward years with Burton) and Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) in their efforts.
Notably, Suffragette is the film to be granted permission to film at the Houses of Parliament and it is this attention to detail that aids the film’s feeling of immediacy. Wonderfully shot, the film’s pace is measured and consistently engaging. The cast, as mentioned are impressive. Carey Mulligan in particular, as the emotional centre of the film, is sublime. Her ability to engage the audience emotionally, along with her entirely convincing transformation from downtrodden woman to violent suffragette is entirely believable and more importantly, utterly moving.
As a film itself and as a document of women’s suffrage, Suffragette is more than serviceable and indeed, I am sure its cast will find itself rewarded when it comes to awards season. The problem rests then, in the fact that a film dealing with such an issue is more than simply a film. Through its very central conceit it becomes, or at least should become, political. My concern with this film is that its audience will find itself placated, praising themselves on how far women’s rights have come in the past century, congratulating themselves that we now live in a society in which women can have a political voice. And therein lies the issue for me. It must be noted too, the lack of representation of women of colour, who despite documentation, have rarely been featured due to whitewashing of history.
When the documentary He Named Me Malala plays before the film highlighting the lack of education for women I am not placated. When I am continually treated differently due to my gender, or am regularly compelled to correct the language used to refer to sexual women Suffragette merely highlights to me how much more needs to be done. The film ends with mentioning the years in which women were granted the vote in various countries, as if by gaining the vote women were suddenly equal to men. My fear then, is that too many audience members will watch this film and remark, much like my fellow cinema-goer, ‘it’s amazing isn’t it the struggle women had’ without thinking of the struggles women still face every day around the world. As Sisters Uncut noted when they disrupted the premiere of Suffragette ‘violence against women … kills two women a week in the UK’.