It may have been no more than a coincidence that Michelle Payne, the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup, was wearing the colours of the suffragette movement of one hundred years ago. The moment was an irresistible milestone for women, however, while also recalling what ground-breakers those other purple-green-and-white wearers were. And, most poignantly, Payne’s win echoes another famous horse race, the Epsom Derby of 4 June 1913, when the suffragette heroine Emily Davison threw herself under the King’s horse in a suicidal gesture to draw attention to the cause of women’s suffrage.
Sarah Gavron’s film Suffragette, shown during the British Film Festival and on general release from Boxing Day, comes at the end of a year of high-profile British films, several of them featuring strong women who refuse to be subject to gender discrimination and choose to ally themselves to causes that demand moral probity. Think of Imelda Staunton as the Gay Pride activist in Pride or Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth, two obvious examples. To this list we can now add Carey Mulligan’s Maud Watts, the heroine of Suffragette, a fictitious incarnation of many brave women of a century ago.
I’m ashamed not to have had more detailed historical knowledge of the movement, of the suffragists whose non-violent responses to inequality were replaced by the suffragettes who found that mere words were not enough. Those who, like me, feel they would like to know more about these events of the early twentieth century may be interested to read Brian Harrison’s Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain (1978), which traces the complexities of the struggle.
Considering its central importance in the struggle for women’s equality, film-makers’ interest in the subject has been sparse indeed, and this is all the more surprising because, as the novelist Tessa Hadley wrote recently, the suffragettes “couldn’t have had half their effect without photography.” A compilation of early footage, Suffragettes in Silent Cinema, was released in 2003, but details of its production and distribution are hard to find. In 2015, to coincide with the new feature, Bryony Dixon and Margaret Deriaz have made a more ambitious compilation under the title Make More Noise: Suffragettes in Silent Film, its title derived from words spoken by Emmeline Pankhurst.
Other than these serious attempts to chronicle film’s attention to the movement, there is a segment in the Boulting brothers’ 1947 film Fame Is the Spur involving the suffragette wife (Rosamund John) of the film’s protagonist, a politician who loses his way idealistically. His wife, on the other hand, dies for her cause, following a hunger strike and force-feeding in Holloway Prison. This is quite a way from Mary Poppins (1964), in which Mrs Banks (Glynis Johns) cosily aligns herself to the Votes for Women cause.
Until Suffragette, the only serious attempt on screen to come to terms with the movement seems to have been the BBC mini-series Shoulder to Shoulder (1974). In six episodes of seventy-five minutes each, the series was able to be more inclusive than the new film and to take a more sustained interest in the characters of the chief activists, with each episode highlighting one of them. Perhaps the most moving is “Lady Constance Lytton,” in which Judy Parfitt gives a harrowingly felt performance as the eponymous aristocrat who allies herself to the cause, insists on being treated with the same cruelty as the other women who are arrested, and dies for her pains – and her integrity.
Watching Shoulder to Shoulder again forty years later, one realises how unlikely our free-to-air channels today would be to risk holding viewers’ attention over six weeks with such material. It is of course stirring in the ultimate outcome of the movement, and this note is ushered in by the robust chorus of Dame Ethel Smyth’s inspirational hymn to the movement’s efforts, “The March of the Women,” but it is also uncompromising in its treatment of the rigours and brutalities to which the women were exposed. The greater length of the series enabled it to explore more amply divisions within the ranks, and within the Pankhurst family, between those who shied away from the idea of violence as a means to their end and those who supported the cry of “action, not words.”
“You’re my wife. That’s what you’re meant to be,” says Sonny Watts (Ben Whishaw) in a casual but firmly spoken line at the start of Suffragette. It’s not that Sonny is especially patriarchal; he’s just giving voice to the received wisdom of the time and place (London, 1912) – received, that is, by at least the male half of the population. The film’s next image of this “wife,” Maud, finds her working in a vast, hideous laundry where the female workforce is under the direction of the brusque male voice of their bullying employer. What will follow is the story of a group of working women who unite to join the fight for women’s rights, these to be symbolised by their being given the vote.
Maud Watts’s journey from subdued wife and mother and bullied employee to political activist who will suffer greatly from her efforts is at the film’s centre, but the film doesn’t make the mistake of seeing hers as a purely individual struggle. Abi Morgan’s screenplay keeps its focus on both Maud’s potentially tragic situation and the wider and growing storm of protest against the manifest inequity of a system that can allow a male public figure to declare with unquestioned authority that women are well represented by husbands, brothers and sons. A sudden explosion of activity, the result of stones being thrown to the accompaniment of shouts demanding “votes for women,” pushes the film’s narrative into the activism of the streets.
Part of the film’s skill is in its juxtaposing of such episodes with the quieter but no less persuasive conflict in the Watts’s cramped home, where Maud tries to interest her husband in the women’s cause. The fact that Sonny is not any sort of brute imbues with real pain the later moments when he, unable to do his job, maintain their home and look after their child, is forced to give his son up for adoption. Neither Morgan’s screenplay nor Sarah Gavron’s direction goes in for a facile melodramatic development in the dramatisation of Maud’s situation. Rather, they have settled for a realist approach in the time-honoured tradition of much of the best of British cinema, from its war and postwar days through the “new wave” films of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
This is not to decry the potential power of melodrama but simply to indicate a different approach. There is real power in the way the film depicts Maud’s gradual radicalisation in the women’s movement, as she observes various kinds of cruel discrimination in her workplace and indeed on the streets and in high places. Against this growing awareness of the larger issues at stake is the gradual escalation of tension in her home, leading to some unbearably poignant moments as Maud is torn between her growing commitment to the cause, which will eventually lead her to prison, and the collapse of her family life. She becomes increasingly ready to speak out for the beliefs that have taken hold of her, and the life of poverty and struggle that have brought her to this point.
In a very moving scene – moving because it relies on Carey Mulligan’s quietly tense delivery rather than any touch of sentimentality or high drama – she speaks, in place of an injured colleague, before an audience of men including Lloyd George. Here, unprepared for rhetoric, she gives a compelling account of how she has been forced out of education and, at a very early age, into employment where she was eventually paid thirteen shillings a week for the same work that earned men nineteen shillings.
While Maud is being torn between the claims of domestic life and the wider loyalty to the women’s movement, the film provides a cleverly sustained build-up of the way the suffrage cause is drawing public attention to itself. Stones are thrown through windows; outrage follows the announcement that those in power follow a “no votes for women” agenda; police intervene to curb crowds of angry women; and the montage of brutal treatment that follows seems to be based on no lack of historical evidence. Posters and newspaper headlines reveal when, but not where, Emmeline Pankhurst is due to address a crowd, and the police attempt to find out where this is to take place and to intervene.
All this is, in a sense, a build-up to Meryl Streep’s star persona but more importantly to the woman whose name, perhaps above all others, is associated with this tide of history. In one of the film’s obvious set-piece highlights, Streep, as Pankhurst, appears on a balcony to address the crowd of women below. As police move threateningly towards the scene, she memorably tells the listeners, “We don’t want to be law-breakers, we want to be law-makers. Never surrender!” These words, almost identical to those spoken by Siân Phillips in the same role in Shoulder to Shoulder, carry the weight of history with them. Streep, as immaculately English as she was when she played Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2011), does a great star turn, and it is difficult to think of an English actress who would have done it with more effortless authority. This is just one remarkable scene, however, and the real burden of the film is carried by Mulligan, supported by Anne-Marie Duff, Romola Garai, Natalie Press and Helena Bonham Carter as fellow foot soldiers in the cause and, on the male side, by Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson as a humane, somewhat blinkered police inspector.
But the credit belongs above all to director Sarah Gavron and her screenwriter Abi Morgan. Their film does justice to what was an appalling injustice and to the women who fought to remedy it – and they are a likely pair of collaborators for the enterprise. Remember Gavron’s feature debut, Brick Lane (2007), with its poignant account of a young Indian woman in London tempted by a love outside her marriage to a kind, older man? It was a film made with unsentimental sympathy and a sharp perception of what goes on in relationships, both of which qualities she brings to bear on the new film. And Abi Morgan’s writing credits include not only Brick Lane, but also The Iron Lady, in which she managed to be both fair and sympathetic to Thatcher, and Shame, which starred Carey Mulligan, the central figure in Suffragette. These three have now worked together to make a film that is both an absorbing entertainment and one that gives rise to serious thought.
Without ever descending into mere didacticism, a persuasive case is made. It is all the more persuasive for daring (as indeed did Shoulder to Shoulder) to imply that aspects of the suffragette action, such as stone-throwing, might have alienated some of the activists’ potential supporters. We are often reminded, and rightly so, of other crucial twentieth-century tragedies and matters of social and political importance, and that makes Suffragette seem doubly overdue. Suffragette reminds us of what those women stood for and what they sacrificed – and what they achieved. As novelist Sarah Crompton has written, “Each generation takes a view of the suffragettes that suits its needs. The story is both of its time and timeless, a history that mustn’t be forgotten and whose sharp lessons will always be relearned.” Stories, on page or screen, that tell of heroic struggle for justice can’t be told too often, and Suffragette fulfils this function with clarity and passion. •