My Mum told me about Emily Davison – I don’t remember when, it was one of the things I just always remember knowing, ‘you must use your right to vote, never take it for granted, women died for your right to vote – one women threw herself under the King’s horse to make the men listen’. Or something to that effect. Probably my first encounter with the Suffragette movement was in Mary Poppins, lovely, cheery, singing Mrs Banks – I bet you never went on hunger strike, Mrs Banks. The suffrage movement pops up in the period dramas, Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs and so on, always quite clean, always middle or upper class. I’d never seen anything on screen about the so-called foot soldiers of the movement – the working classes. Until now.
Suffragette was every bit as brilliant as the trailer promised and my mind had imagined, and with a woman writing (Abi Morgan), a woman directing (Sarah Gavron) and over 50% of the listed producers women too, it was ‘well done sister suffragette’ indeed. The attention to detail was glorious, the costumes, the colour palette, the sets – every part of the film was dedicated to creating not a rose tinted view of history but a feeling of stepping straight into the middle of working class, east end London in 1912.
It’s not an easy watch, but Carey Mulligan is on top form, when she’s cast right, there is no one to rival her and this is wonderful casting. Mulligan finds a physicality with a solid grounding which makes you believe utterly in the hard background of her laundry worker, Maud, and she is the epicentre of the film. Mulligan has so much going on beyond her lines of script, her eyes giving us backstory, hopes and dreams in just a few moments of screen time – from the opening dreamlike gaze at the Oxford Street shop front, to her rapture at hearing Mrs Pankhurst speak – she makes it look so effortless, she just is Maud.
Mulligan shines too because of the surrounding cast (hooray for casting by Fiona Weir), casting Meryl Streep as Pankhurst was genius (apparently this was Mulligan’s Mum’s suggestion – hooray for Mums) and even more genius was to stay on Maud’s face, and the faces of the gathered Suffragettes, almost throughout Streep’s brief screen time. The film is not called ‘Mrs Pankhurst’ after all. Helena Bonham Carter is understated and quietly superb as the highly educated pharmacist (I wanted to be a doctor but…), Anne Marie Duff’s cheeky Violet seems to be a 2D ‘look I am new to this factory and I’ve got some naughty ideas’ role at first glance, put there to kick start Maud’s awakening, but Duff’s talent and Morgan’s script deliver so much more. And of course a word for the wonderful men, Ben Whishaw finds a lovely truth in Sonny, Brendan Gleeson is on well trod ground as Inspector Steed but he does it so well and let’s have a shout out for Adam Michael Dodd, the least stage schooly child actor ever and just a delight as young George. It would have been easy for Morgan to write the men as minor, cliched characters but all credit – apart from the ever so horrible Laundry foreman (hooray for the hand burning), all the male characters were written as complete, flawed and complicated.
Gavron never allows us to forget who the film is about and that means utilising some seriously close camera work. We are right next to Maud all the time – when she dresses and plays with her son, when she laughs with her friend, her moment of triumph at Parliament and when she dances for her son in the rain after being separated from him. We are there when she wipes the sweat from her brow on the stifling laundry floor, as she is groped by the foreman, punched by a policeman, stripped by prison guards, when she tells her son never to forget her name as he is forcibly adopted, when she is force fed. As I said, it is not an easy watch – the violence against the women in the crowd after Chamberlain announces no change to the bill, the unrelenting and unflinching scene of force feeding, the absolutely heart wrenching scene when George is taken away, the shock of watching Davison step onto the racecourse, all of these moments, you want to look away, but you don’t.
However, it was the less obvious, the unspoken parts of this film that stayed with me and kept me churning as I walked out of the cinema and all the way home. The scarring on Maud’s right shoulder and upper arm, we assume from a laundry accident; a line shouted by one of the laundry workers ‘We ought to tell your husband Violet to sort you out’ and the next scene being Violet’s bruised and battered face – but no outrage at this, just an acceptance – a sign of the inevitable; the implicit but never really mentioned sexual abuse of Maud from a young age; the explicit ownership of women and children – that Sonny can give away George for adoption without Maud’s knowledge – when Romola Garai begs her MP husband to bail out all the arrested women ‘It’s my money, mine’ ‘But you are MY wife’. And Violet when she confesses she is pregnant to Maud, ‘Again? I can’t look after the ones I have got. And I am so tired.’ In those brief lines and with a look of utter desperation, she sums up generation upon generation of women through history and brings us bang up to date – ‘reproductive coercion’ is a recognised part of domestic abuse – and however far we have come with equality, you cannot escape the fact that it’s women that have the babies.
It’s not a film that shouts, it’s a film that invites you in and says I have this amazing story, want to listen? So you can just take this film as a snapshot, a 100 or so minutes with these spectacularly brave women and if you like as an introduction to encourage you to read more and understand the history, the motivations. But the film ends with these lines:
‘The woman wanderer goes forth on the path towards freedom.” She wonders, “I am alone, utterly alone. Why do I go to this far land?” And reason says to her, “Silence, what do you hear? Thousands, and they beat this way. . . Feet of those who follow you. Lead on.’
I think that’s an invitation, isn’t it? I am with Caitlin Moran on feminism – I just want to be one of ‘The Guys’. So although the things I write now may feel aimed at women, it’s 2015, I want everyone to do this:
Women still don’t have equal pay in this country, women are still entirely judged on whether or not they have children, 2 women a week are killed by their partner or former partner…I could go on and on, but you pick your statistic, you pick your cause. I know it’s overwhelming these days, things have improved so much and there’s no simple, big cause to fight for like an equal vote, but that doesn’t mean we should be idle. A month or so ago I signed a petition to get a transgender women( who had lived as a women for all of her adult life, but hadn’t had reassignment surgery) moved from an all-male prison to a female prison. And it worked. She was moved. And it felt good. So use your right to vote, and if you don’t want to, go to the polls and write ‘you all suck’ on your ballot paper, but show up. If you see sexism, call it out, if you see or suspect violence or abuse say something, support a women’s refuge or charity, write to your MP to address cuts to local services, sign that petition to get Ireland to legalise abortion, whatever it is, do something – never surrender. Never give up the fight.
Phew – better end on a song – play us out Mrs Banks: