Talking Movies

October 12, 2015

Suffragette

Carey Mulligan stars as a young suffragette in 1912, whose life falls apart as she becomes ever more militant in her fight for the vote.

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Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) works long hours in an East End laundry. Her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) also works there, delivering the freshly-laundered clothes. Their boss is a tyrant, but that’s the way of it in 1912. But when Maud is caught in the middle of a violent protest by Mrs Drayton (Lisa Dillon), and Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) comes to work at the laundry, the door is opened to a new world. Maud finds herself testifying in front of Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller) as part of a campaign by Alice Haughton (Romola Garai) to convince Parliament that working women deserve the vote. Little does Alice know that her husband, Cabinet Minister Benedict Haughton (Samuel West), is simultaneously ordering Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson) to break the ring circling around chemist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). And Steed targets newcomer Maud…

‘The Time is Now’ proclaims Suffragette’s posters. What is the contemporary relevance? Pankhurst proclaims “We want to be lawmakers, not lawbreakers.” We also hear “We will not respect the law, if the law is not respectable.” Lincoln ignored the similar contradiction in his legalistic philosophy. He wanted to make slavery illegal, but if he doesn’t respect the existing law, despite wanting everyone else to respect his future law, then he’s guided not by law but a higher ethical imperative. So his opponents could claim a similar ethical imperative when not respecting his law. Suffragette’s politics are as muddled as expected from Iron Lady scribe Abi Morgan. Maud’s petulant “They lied to us” is shot down by Gleeson’s “They didn’t lie. You were promised nothing, and you were given nothing.” Yet the opening scroll tells us 50 years proved peaceful campaigning was a waste. Does Morgan know how long Catholic Emancipation took? The eternity it took for the Chartists’ demands to be met? (And we’re still waiting on one, annual elections).

Gleeson’s Irish detective makes you realise that blowing up post boxes, smashing in random shop windows, GBH, and dynamiting the Chancellor’s summerhouse aren’t civil disobedience. These are outrages, which, Fenian or Anarchist, were a feature of the times. There’s a more interesting period-appropriate Conradian tale floated when Steed tries to recruit Maud as a double-agent, but this is too simplistic a film for that. Eduard Grau renders 1912’s East End grimy and occasionally dreamy in his grainy, close-in camerawork, and Mulligan and Gleeson are on fine form as the antagonists. The problem is the script. Meryl Streep appears for two scenes as Pankhurst, but Brick Lane director Sarah Gavron shies away from contrasting Pankhurst’s comfortable fugitive life with Maud losing everything when Sonny shuns her for fear of unemployment and further ostracising by their neighbours. The closing scroll proclaims that because of Pankhurst women of property over 30 got the vote, i.e. Pankhurst, not Maud. WWI might deserve that credit, but in either case Maud was merely an expendable pawn.

Suffragette’s final image; women marching at Emily Davison’s funeral as Maud narrates; is jaw-dropping for historical obliviousness. Less than 14 months later, millions of men would march to death.

2.5/5

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