Written by Mickey Noonan

Arts

Review: Suffragette

Sarah Gavron’s film drives home the awesome courage of the women who fought for us all and sadly retains relevance more than 100 years on. Standard Issue‘s editor Mickey Noonan went to see it.

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There are statistics over the final credits of Suffragette, listing places where women have been given the vote – and when.

From the marked absences to the staggering recentness of the event in some countries, it’s a shocker. My friend left the cinema muttering, “Fucking hell Switzerland. Switzerland?!”

Suffragette is a historical film, but the message at its core remains relevant today.

Written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron, Suffragette is a fittingly fierce tribute to the women who fought – and continue to fight – for half the population’s right to vote. When peaceful measures and entreaties failed, they looked to how wars had been won in the past and, led by the indomitable Emmeline Pankhurst, became militant.

Pre-First World War, the suffragette movement was in full swing and we mostly think we know the story: the Pankhursts, insurrection, Emily Davison and the King’s horse, vote. Well, kind of.

“I wondered if I’d have had the strength and courage to be a suffragette foot soldier. I’d like to think yes (obviously), but the film drives home how awesomely brave these women were.”

Suffragette serves as a reminder that there were individuals at the fight’s core: women with families who risked everything, who lost everything, so that future women might have it better.

Carey Mulligan as the fictional Maud Watts is the dramatic focus and heart of the film, her Everywoman character exuding more of an identity as the film progresses and the political fire takes hold of her belly.

Maud has been a laundry worker since she was 12, as her mum was before her and as her daughter, should she have had one, would have been as well – or so her husband (Ben Whishaw) says without a moment’s hesitation. It’s not much of a life: longer hours and less pay than the men, and no rights whatsoever. She is her husband’s property. As is their young son.

A combination of abuse she can no longer ignore and chopsy co-worker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) opens Maud’s eyes to the fight for women’s suffrage and introduces her to fellow rebels, including Emily Wilding Davison (excellent work from Natalie Press) and firebrand pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), who also has a fine sideline in munitions.

Suffragette UK posterThe revolution heats up, inside the sisters-in-arms and on the streets of Great Britain. The men – husbands, co-workers, MPs – are frightened and panicky.

The film culminates in one of the most dramatic moments in women’s history: Emily Wilding Davison stepping in front of George V’s horse at Epsom on 4 June 1913. Her injuries were fatal, her death a decisive point in the women’s rights movement, although it was another five years before any British women were allowed to vote.

In Suffragette, Davison’s (still contested) ‘self-sacrifice’ isn’t presented as martyrdom, although the notion that the cause would benefit from one of its proponents dying is heavily signposted – and there’s no doubt that it did.

It’s something that Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson, magnificent as always), brought in by the government to monitor and stop the “filthy Panks”, warns against when he sees the increasingly barbaric treatment of the suffragette prisoners.

“It’s not much of a life: longer hours and less pay than the men, and no rights whatsoever. She is her husband’s property. As is their young son.”

And what of chief rabble-rouser, Mrs Pankhurst? Meryl Streep’s fleeting cameo is akin to Judi Dench’s appearance in Shakespeare in Love: swift but gripping, her commanding speech – interrupted by the police – a call for civil disobedience to get the women’s voices heard. But this is the working-class suffragette’s story: it’s grim and grey and hard and constantly threatening to beat the fight out of you.

My background and upbringing means I’d have been in Maud’s position and, throughout the film, I wondered if I’d have had the strength and courage to be a suffragette foot soldier. I’d like to think yes (obviously), but the film drives home how awesomely brave these women were. And serves as a reminder that there are women all over the world today still risking their lives for even a sniff of equality.

Suffragette ends on archive footage of Davison’s funeral: thousands of suffragettes lining the London streets. It’s powerful stuff but no happy ending. And rightly so. Yes, women in Britain started getting the vote from 1918, but the fight for equality, overseas and at home, is far from won. Never give up.

@MicksterNoonan

Watch Standard Issue staff and contributors read Why We Are Militant, an Emmeline Pankhurst speech from 1913 that still resonates today.

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Written by Mickey Noonan

Aged five, Mickey Noonan shoved an apple pip up her nose to see what happened. Older, wiser but sadly without a nose-tree, Standard Issue's editor remains curious about the world. Likes running, jumping and static trapeze.