Suffragette (UK 2015)

(Left to right in the centre ground) Anne-Marie Duff, Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter

(Left to right in the centre ground) Anne-Marie Duff, Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter

Suffragette is doing OK in UK cinemas. In my local cinema it was in the smaller screen with the Bond movie downstairs in the larger screen but there was still a healthy audience and I lost my preferred seat. My impression is that UK critics have been kinder to the film than those in North America (some of which have been very strange – though as Meryl Streep pointed out at the LFF Press Conference, many Americans won’t know what the title means). A note of caution however, the film was given a saturation release on over 500 screens and it fell 56% in its second week, suggesting that it might not have the ‘legs’ for a long run. The figures for the third weekend will be interesting. Suffragette has already made £5.8 million in the UK so does the box office trend mean much?

The positive about Suffragette is that audiences have the opportunity to see it all over the UK (and Ireland). For younger audiences it may prove to be an important history lesson at a time when there appears to be a feminist revival but the dreadful state of the UK school curriculum means that rates of political literacy are low and the events leading up to partial suffrage for women in the UK in 1918 are not necessarily widely known. The film has been well-promoted and overall it delivers. The central idea of constructing the narrative around the gradual consciousness-raising and politicisation of a single working-class character in an East London works well. Carey Mulligan as Maud is totally convincing. It’s great to have seen her in two British films this year and she is now perhaps the leading star actor of her generation in the UK. It’s also good to see all the creative opportunities for the likes of writer Abi Morgan, director Sarah Gavron and the many women in the crew as well as Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham-Carter and Natalie Press as fellow activists.

I’ve not heard too many people say that they ‘enjoyed’ Suffragette, although several have said how impressive it is, how worthwhile, even how inspiring. I did find it impressive up to the final act that we knew was coming – Emily Davidson’s fatal attempt to catch hold of the King’s horse in the Epsom Derby of 1913. Whereas the earlier scenes seemed manageable in terms of the film’s chosen aesthetic – a muted palette of greys and blues for Eduard Grau’s camera and relatively tight framing of small scenes of action – Epsom in summer sun and the toffs in colourful clothes didn’t seem to work. It felt as though the budget couldn’t stretch to a full-scale crowded racetrack and I wondered if something more abstract might not have worked better – a slow motion sequence perhaps. Afterwards I wondered whether a different event such as the slashing of the Rokeby Venus painting in 1914 might not have been a better bet as a climactic event. As it is the funeral of Emily Davidson is represented by carefully presented ‘topical’ footage reframed from archive material. Maud is a fictional creation so it doesn’t matter what she witnessed. The other characters are mainly either ‘historical’ or based on historical characters.

This trio appeared on many posters. It doesn't represent the importance of the characters in the narrative – Anne-Marie Duff should replace Meryl Streep

This trio appeared on many posters. It doesn’t represent the importance of the characters in the narrative – Anne-Marie Duff should replace Meryl Streep as a working-class mother with a daughter.

I’m surprised that Meryl Streep allowed her image to be used so blatantly in the film’s promotion. She plays Emmeline Pankhurst but has only a few minutes of screen time. There are many other actors who could have performed the role and who would not have been displayed on the poster, displacing Anne-Marie Duff. The point here is that this is not a film about the middle-class suffragettes but about the foot soldiers of the movement (see Sarah Gavron’s statements in the clip below). I hope that there will be discussions about which stories appear in the film. I’ve seen North American reviews that claim that the film focuses on the middle-class activists and that this is a kind of ‘heritage film’ – but neither charge is justified. Politically, one of the most interesting aspects of the script is the links that are made to Irish independence struggles (in which women also played important roles). I’m not sure about the surveillance cameras that are used in the film (presumably this was researched?) but the presence of Brendan Gleeson as an Irish police Inspector who utilises the same methods in investigating suffragette activity as he had previously used with ‘Fenian’ activists seems an astute point. I hope that audiences make the connections between the ways in which the British state historically treated suffragettes and Irish republicans. The British state seemed to learn nothing from the treatment of hunger strikers in 1913 when it came to the treatment of internees such as Bobby Sands in 1981.

Of all the reviews I’ve seen, the best is by Graham Fuller on theartsdesk.com. I realise that we independently came to similar conclusions but he expresses them more eloquently – though he also describes the plot in some detail, so beware. The Film 4 featurette below is an excellent resource with Sarah Gavron, Abi Morgan and Anne-Marie Duff and clips from the film. I’m still staggered by the lack of historical knowledge shown by these three (and Carey Mulligan in other interviews) before they started work on the project. I’m sure this was on our school syllabuses in the 1960s, but perhaps I read it all somewhere else? What I certainly didn’t know was that the police surveillance files of the period became available to the public in 2002. But really we shouldn’t be surprised by what the state would do to confront any form of democratic challenge. This is an important film that everyone should see.

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One comment

  1. keith1942

    I agree with quite a lot of Roy’s comment. The link to the Irish struggle is interesting. However, I had two serious problems with the script in particular. An opening title refers to a ‘group of working women’, but, apart from Mulligan’s character, the women are undeveloped.
    And we are in the East End: what happened to the Socialist movement, Sylvia Pankhurst and George Lansbury? This is bourgeois history, even if it has working class protagonist.
    I should add that quite a number of women viewers I spoke to were really keen on the film.

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