HARD-hitting historical drama Suffragette hit cinemas on Tuesday. Quays entertainment reporter Eleanor Doward shares her thoughts…

The trailer promised a fairly brutal, in parts hopeless and in parts rousing portrayal of the Suffrage movement in early 20th century London, and the film did not disappoint. Starring Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep, it follows the story of a group of women who fight for their cause as members of the Women’s Social and Political Union against huge odds.

The focus of the film is the story of 24-year-old working-class washerwoman Maud Watts, played by Mulligan. Becoming increasingly tired of the drudgery of her ill-paying job under a cruel and salacious boss, as well as her allotted role of wife and mother, she begins to be drawn in to the Suffragette movement by degrees.

While the window-smashing demonstration by angry protestors who scream ‘votes for women!’ initially frightens her, a number of charismatic friends encourage her involvement in the movement. Violet Miller, played by Duff, is a bold and assertive fellow washerwoman who presses Maud to make a speech to Cabinet Ministers in her place as she is unable to address them herself. Edith Ellyn, meanwhile, the middle-class and educated pharmacist played by Bonham-Carter, cuts an impressive, brisk and resolutely militant figure.

Although initially reluctant to call herself a Suffragette, as she becomes more and more involved in the fight, Maud endures prison sentences that involve force-feeding when she opts to go on hunger-strike, loses her job and sees herself shunned from her family, her neighbours and society more generally. The power of the men within government and of the men beyond it to control and manipulate everything from the press to a woman’s security in her home is powerfully emphasised. Maud eventually must take to living on the streets with no job or family to support her. Yet the support of her Suffragette friends and her unshakeable passion make her desperate situation inspirational as well as depressing.

Mulligan shone in the role of Maud, managing to get the balance of despondence, despair and relentless passion exactly right. We watch her character grow and change and become more confident in articulating her beliefs; from a woman who apologises for ‘words’ not being her forte, to a woman who makes the most impassioned speech of the film in which she tells Inspector Arthur Steed, played by Brendan Gleeson, that the ‘only language men understand is war’. Bonham-Carter’s portrayal of Edith too was near perfect; a brilliant mix of compassion and ruthless militancy. Duff’s character was a little more inconsistent: what started off as a bold, courageous character was eventually side-lined by others, particularly Emily Wilding Davison, the martyr of the movement, played by Natalie Press, around whom the close of the film focussed. Her development as a character and friendship with Maud was a little rushed.

Alongside the acting, the scenes of protests, force-feeding and police-brutality were undeniably shocking and many of the scenes were moving; particularly difficult to watch was the slow loss of her family Maud had to endure as her hostile husband refused to be ‘disgraced’ by her. Yet the focus on Maud’s story was a focus on the story of the white Suffragette, albeit from a working-class, rather than middle-class perspective. A multitude of powerful stories were lost in this approach. The cast was entirely white; the contributions women of different ethnic backgrounds, such as the many British Indian women whose involvement is well-documented, were ignored.

Other branches of the Suffragette movement which dealt with other aspects of working-class life such as housing and poverty to name a few were also unacknowledged. We were instead left with a story that is important, inspirational and true, but not untold. The film’s publicity campaign which saw the main (white) actresses wearing Emmeline Pankhurst’s quote ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’ on t-shirts was distasteful at best, and something only a trademark white feminist could swallow without wincing.

A good film that was both depressing and uplifting, but frustrating in that it could have showed us so much more. It drew the audience into the struggle these women faced and invites us to share both their despondency and their passion. It also got across the scale of the very real dangers and obstacles they had to contend with. It’s a shame that a film so well thought out in many ways was let down simply by not showing us a more inclusive representation of the Suffragette movement; one which is incredibly important, and has not been publicised enough.

By: Eleanor Doward
@EllieDoward

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