For some time I was labouring under the misapprehension - and I don't know why - that Stephen Frears was directing Suffragette. Watching it today, I've come to the conclusion that it's a shame he didn't: because he wouldn't have felt the need to have handheld wobbly cam at the most inopportune moments. It's an incredibly frustrating choice from director Sarah Gavron and is, unfortunately, just one of many choices that make this a terribly disappointing, missed opportunity of a movie.
Sarah Gavron and scriptwriter Abi Morgan have previously worked together on the big screen with Brick Lane which, tantalisingly, never achieved the potential it promised. This seems a common failing with Morgan as a writer - I was a fan of her BBC2 series The Hour (the stars of which Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw appear here) and felt terribly disappointed when the BBC chose to axe it, though despite my enjoyment of it I could understand the corporations reasoning. All too often it fumbled the catch, only ever hinting at perfection. In the end the BBC just grew bored of waiting for that promise to arrive. It's a shame, but understandable. You would think that Morgan, the writer responsible for the brilliant and polemical Sex Traffic - still the best thing she has ever done - would come into her own here with the story of the British suffrage movement in the 1900s, but she offers up here an emotionally manipulative, scant and somewhat hollow gallop through key points in the Pankhurst led struggle.
Set in the East End of London in 1912, the film focuses on Maud Watts played by Carey Mulligan, a laundry worker who becomes involved in the suffragette movement almost by accident just as her new found sisters step up their policy of direct action. Maud is the epitome of an audience 'in'; she is shown to have little interest in politics and isn't especially concerned by the lack of a voice that she and her fellow women have in society. She is simply a hardworker who is totally committed to her family, her husband Sonny (Whishaw) and her sickly infant son, George. When she agrees to accompany her militant co-worker Violet (the brilliant Anne-Marie Duff) to the House of Commons to speak up for the movement to Lloyd George, Maud finds herself suddenly having to take Violet's place and, in describing her life, the scales fall from her eyes. She realises how needlessly unfair and how hard her life has been. Suddenly the key events in her life - her mother dead by the time she was just four years old, from an accident at work, and her routine sexual abuse at the hands of a repulsive overseer (Geoff Bell) - take on new meaning as she becomes rightly convinced that women are seen as second class citizens. As a result, political activity begins to dominate her life, to the detriment of her private life. Cast out from both home and community, disgusted by her activism, Maud has to endure the emotional trauma of having her son kept away from her - the law at the time counting solely in the patriarch's favour - and ultimately adopted without her consent. These increasing cruelties only serve to spur her on, proving to her just how important the fight for equal rights for women is.
Unfortunately it is here that accuracy is given over in favour of emotional manipulation. Morgan portrays Maud as an exile because of her beliefs when, in reality, the East End of London was - like many working class industrial cities and towns - extremely militant hubs where it was far more likely that political activists were the majority rather than the minority depicted here. Equally the men of such an area were just as active in politics and unionisation and they gave their wholehearted support to the WSPU, whose members would be their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters. But Morgan and Gavron chose to depict all the working class menfolk as little more than moustache twiddling chauvinistic villains. Whishaw is shown to be spineless, whilst Bell is a sexual predatory abuser. Only the middle class husband of Helena Bonham Carter's professional lady is shown as a sympathetic comrade in arms - another example of that objectionable and all too common distortion of historical accuracy which depicts only the well educated, intelligent and professional to be politically active and aware when compared to their working class number. It is they who show those less fortunate, those suffering the harshest, the way. Hmmm....
Worst of all though is the way the film fails to accurately show the aims and intentions of the suffragettes. I never felt like I truly got an appreciation of just why the right to vote was so passionately fought for by these women beyond Morgan's glib domestic angle, depicting a family being torn apart because of an injustice within the law of the land. Equally, the hardships and cruelties many suffragettes endured for their campaign is barely dealt with - most notably the imprisonment and hunger strikes, which are briefly shown and of which, their impact is ignored completely. For a film called Suffragette, precious little is actually about the Suffragette movement itself, weirdly.
Much has been made of Meryl Streep's role as Emily Pankhurst (though, for me, it's like Comic Strip's The Strike has finally come true - in that Jennifer Saunders played Meryl Streep playing Arthur Scargill's wife in a Hollywood movie about the miners strike of '84 and we laughed, now it's a reality people embrace!) but I must point out this is a very fleeting appearance - even less than Judi Dench Shakespeare in Love - so if you're a Streep fan, you will be disappointed. Much of the film rests on the shoulders of Carey Mulligan, an accomplished and engaging actress but, as I say, the role is little more than an 'in', with all the underdeveloped character that implies. She comes to life in the scenes in which her views are challenged and contrasted by Brendan Gleeson's Irish detective charged with pursuing members of the WSPU and who has his own experience of people fighting for a cause, but these scenes are unfortunately few and far between. I much preferred Anne-Marie Duff and, in the crucial role of the tragic Emily Davison, Natalie Press, an actress whose curious and occasionally quirky and unreadable style is ideally suited to the ambiguity surrounding her character, but whose impact is lessened once more by a lack of substantial characterisation there in the script. Helena Bonham Carter also provides assured and attractive but ultimately somewhat empty support thanks again to the script's routine failings in fleshing out its characters.
Suffragette just about scrapes 3 stars out of 5 because it is about something important, but it really should have been better - the women it attempts to celebrate deserve much better. If you want to watch something more substantial about the suffragette movement I would recommend the excellent 1970s serial Shoulder to Shoulder - stupidly, this has never been released on DVD but it is available to view on YouTube. Kudos though for this film including the line about Lloyd George's summer house being paid for by the owner of the News of the World....same as it ever was, same as it ever was.
A quick note about viewing this in the cinema - I rarely go to the cinema these days and when i do I go in the afternoon because it's usually quiet and near empty. Suffragette, perhaps because of its subject matter or its cast, drew in a surprisingly good number in the screening despite the time of day and it was a veritable sea of snowy white hair, coughing and comments. I used to say I didn't go to the cinema much because of younger cinemagoers ruining it for everyone. I now actually think the older generation are the worst culprits; mobile phones went off and needless comments were spoken loudly (in a scene where Anne-Marie Duff appears with a battered and bruised face, the woman behind me felt the need to point out "Someone's beat her up" and, in a later scene, when Helena Bonham Carter's husband, fearing for her health, secures her inside her storeroom, she said "He's locked her in") However, as the credits rolled I was amused to hear the gasps of astonishment at the chronological order in which women around the world received the right to vote. Switzerland - a trivia question I have enjoyed for years - was rewarded the loudest audible expression of disbelief: "1971?! Nineteen seventy one?!" Yes folks, 1971. And only now are Saudi Arabia heading towards equality.