One of the subjects that could really get the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s passion aroused was the Suffragette movement. She was proud that universal suffrage was introduced in the UK during her lifetime – she was 7 years old in 1928, when women finally received the same voting rights as men – and she would love to tell tales of knowing of women who had chained themselves to railings, and had huge admiration for Emily Davison, who threw herself under the King’s horse at the Derby. She would have been riveted by the film Suffragette, as it starkly shows the struggles of those women to get their voices heard by committing acts of civil disobedience.
Part fact, part fiction, it follows the life of Maud Watts, married with one son, working hard, long hours in a laundry sweatshop, with a bullying, advantage-taking boss, and who almost accidentally gets caught up in the suffragette movement as she works alongside some of the more active members. As she starts attending meetings, she offers to accompany her colleague Violet Miller to the House of Commons, who was to address a committee of MPs, including the Prime Minister himself, Lloyd George. But circumstances dictate that it is Maud who must give her own account of why women should get the vote – and when cabinet nevertheless decides against extending the vote, her sense of resentment increases and she becomes much more personally involved. Maud, Violet, the pharmacist Edith Ellyn, all fictional characters, as well as the real life Emily Davison, all exert what influence they can to change the law, resulting in trials, imprisonment, verbal and physical abuse from both inside and outside the penal institutions, hunger strikes, and forced feeding. Maud additionally has her private life torn apart by her actions, and the film culminates in Emily Davison’s ultimate sacrifice.
It’s a very strong and moving film; it’s also very dark, both literally and metaphorically. There are some scenes of brutality against the women which make difficult viewing, but as Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, they are fully relevant to the film, and today’s audience shouldn’t be blind to the physical attacks the suffragettes incurred. Personally, I was very surprised at the level of antipathy and hostility expressed towards the suffragettes by the average man (and plenty of average women) on the street. You wouldn’t have thought that everyone was against them – although that’s certainly how it seems in this film. Considering that after Emily Davison’s death they announced that thousands would be lining the streets for her funeral procession, you might have expect someone to have said to Sonny Watts, “she’s alright, your wife” and not just “your wife’s a disgrace”. But then, as once again the wise Mrs C pointed out, it sometimes takes something really visible and tangible to change public opinion, like the picture of the little Syrian boy washed up on the shore seemed to wake people up to the current refugee crisis, even though he was just one of thousands. So no doubt the Derby tragedy alerted many more people to the personal sacrifices women were making.
The film garners some excellent performances all round. Carey Mulligan is brillliant as Maud, growing in self-confidence throughout the film but desperate in her domestic sadness and in her battle to keep in contact with her son. Helena Bonham-Carter – herself the great-granddaughter of Asquith, the Prime Minister during much of the time when the suffragettes were campaigning – is excellent as the hard-working Edith Ellyn, hosting meetings, and fearlessly getting her hands dirty at every opportunity. Anne-Marie Duff plays Violet, a defiantly committed trouble-maker, relishing every opportunity to make a difference. There’s a very enjoyable and rather inspiring brief performance by Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, appearing out of nowhere to deliver a stirring public speech and then disappearing back from whence she came. Ben Whishaw is very good as the under-communicative Sonny, Maud’s husband; you can almost see in his controlling eyes the extent to which he will allow his wife to agitate, and the point at which she will have gone too far. There’s a strong, quiet performance by Brendan Gleeson as the Police Inspector Steed, diligent in enforcing the law but with an understated sense of the bigger picture; and a ruthless cameo by Samuel West as the reactionary politician Benedict, harbouring a draconian resentment against equality.
Dramatic, powerful, dark; a very intense film that reminds us of the sacrifices made by others so that we can have the vote today. Interestingly, it is the first film ever to have scenes actually shot in the Houses of Parliament, which emphasises the still relevant importance of what the suffragettes achieved. Next time you can’t be bothered to turn up to the polling station, just remember what Maud went through.