Suffragette is not a perfect film. It could have used a little tightening up in the editing room, and it’s not quite as representative of the Suffragette movement as it could have been. But it’s easy to forget it’s shortcomings. To be honest, I’m not sure that I have ever seen a film that affected me quite like Suffragette did.
There is something absolutely wonderful about seeing yourself and your history portrayed on a big screen. I knew that I wanted more films about women and their contributions to history. I just didn’t realize how much having a film like that would mean. And from the opening credits, Suffragette is completely overwhelming in that respect.
This is the first feature film ever made about woman’s suffrage. If you needed a neon sign to prove that the film industry routinely erases important women from history, that fact should be all you need. Suffragette begins to right this wrong by giving us a single story about woman who have fought to change history. As an added bonus, this history is placed in our hands. The film is headed by a group of women: director Sarah Gavron, writer Abi Morgan and producers Alison Owen and Faye Ward. This makes Suffragette doubly important, as it not only covers an incredibly important historical moment for women, but it is also given from a female perspective.
And women’s influence on the film is not limited to the top-billed filmmakers. The presence of women continues down the credits list. I’ve never see so many female names attached to a major film before. Women are equally represented behind the camera as they are on screen and that in itself is a major accomplishment, even if the film isn’t worthwhile.
Fortunately, Suffragette is very good. It’s the inspiring, but devastating story of Maud (Carey Mulligan), a working class woman who works at a local laundry house and is married with a young son. She becomes friends with Violet (Marie-Ann Duff), a member of the local Suffragette movement, and begins to fight for the cause. Morgan has created a beautifully nuanced screenplay that takes in everything, from the uncertainty of Maud as she joins the movement to the descent, with the completely misguided Inspector (Brendan Gleeson) being charged with stomping out the Suffragette movement. It also shows us the unwavering bond of female friendship and the joys and heartbreaks of motherhood.
The picture painted is never black and white. Men are not cast as the villains. Instead, it is the entrenched patriarchy and what people have been taught by society that these women are fighting. Men just happen to be the ones leading the charge against them. And Mulligan and Duff are both fantastic, as are their characters as they struggle with fighting for status as people in the eyes of the law, but also trying to keep what little they have that the law affords them, like the pleasures of being a mother.
Much of Suffragette is incredibly difficult to watch. Gavron never shies away from the brutality of what these women were fighting against, but she also doesn’t indulge it. The most violent scenes are frenetic, the details difficult to make out, but that almost makes it harder to watch. What could be so horrible that even a modern day audience, who can watch people be decapitated while eating dinner, couldn’t stomach it? Gavron also understands that the physical violence is far from the worst thing that these women endured. They had their lives upended. They were shut out from their homes, had their children taken from them, were tortured, abused and continually told that they were nothing, incapable of rational thought.
And that’s where Suffragette really hits home. The women of the past fought so hard and endured so much to give us the freedoms we have now, and we are constantly being told how much better things are, especially in the West, and on some level they are. We have the vote, the law considers us to be persons, and these are not small things. However, women are still fighting and dying for these basic rights elsewhere in the world. Even where things are supposedly better, so much is still the same.
We still earn significantly less than men. We are held to a higher standard, just to be given a chance. We must carry the multiple responsibilities of childcare, homemaker and breadwinner. In a good year, women make up 25 per cent of elected officials. One in three women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Society still frames us as men’s playthings, objects to be collected and won and most importantly contained. This is the status quo throughout the world, even where we pretend that general wisdom believes otherwise. All of this ricochets through Suffragette, rooted in the desire to finally find that equal footing and an acknowledgement of its continued lack thereof.
That doesn’t mean that the film is without hope. It is more of a call to action. Women have been fighting for the basic right to be considered a person for more than a century, and that fight is far from over. Suffragette shows us that, contrary to popular belief, women are strong. We have endured so much to achieve what we have and we can survive the the continued fight until we are truly equal. As Maud says, “We’re in every home. We’re half the human race.” And that makes us unstoppable.