20 Oct

Is nothing sacred? It seems not even 007 is immune to the new trend of releasing movies on a Monday. So too with Suffragette, but any day of the week the latter was bound to disappoint. Yes, it conveys the women’s mighty spirit, and the brutality of those who sought to crush it. But that’s all it does and in this day and age it’s not enough. It was a smart move to put the focus on working class women – almost as smart as adding Meryl Streep to the billings for her cameo as Emmeline Pankhurst – but the movement’s class tensions are ignored. That’s unforgivable given its 1912 setting, with rival capitalisms Britain and Germany sliding slowly but surely into the industrialised carnage that would divide the Pankhursts and see the Second International leap, in a matter of weeks, from brave declarations of solidarity sans frontieres to cheering on whichever power its local leaderships shared flags with. There’s no exploration of theoretical context and no attempt to draw obvious parallels – the third big issue of the day being Home Rule – with the Irish struggle. Nor is there a single non-white, a grave omission given the role of Indian women, many of them nannies brought over to tend to rich British children prior to being stranded, thousands of miles from home, when no longer needed.

With engaging characters led by the always convincing Helena Bonham Carter, and the kind of meticulous attention to period authenticity we’ve come to expect on our screens – Downton Abbey … Peaky Blinders – Suffragette will probably do well. But another recent Edwardian piece, last month’s BBC screening of JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, sets the bar for intelligent dramatic exploration that gets under the skin of surface reality. So back to the drawing board with this one, I’m afraid. The suffragette cause was too big and too complex to be adequately addressed by such eye candy flim-flam as this.

2 Replies to “Suffragette

  1. ‘eye-candy film-flam’? I finally got to see the film, and this is unfair, IMO. How often do we get a serious, thoughtful major film about the struggles of working-class women, written and directed by women and with mainly women actors and staff? Why are you criticising it for what it doesn’t do? Admitted, the story of the Indian women who joined the movement is an important and unjustly neglected story, richly deserving of its own film, but it isn’t THIS story. Likewise, there are large and complicated historical questions about WWI and the suffrage movement, but this story ends in 1913. I don’t agree that the Irish struggle is ignored: an unfavourable parallel is drawn, even if not explored – how much do you expect one film to do? Likewise again with the ‘theoretical context’ and the class tensions within the movement: this film does at least point to the latter. Mention ‘suffragette’ to most people, and I’m guessing it would evoke the Pankhursts and their ilk + something nasty about a racehorse; not the participation of so many working-class women and how much they suffered for it.
    JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls is brilliant, in the GB Shaw tradition of Plays Unpleasant, but it’s middle class down (‘You think you aren’t guilty? Think again’), not working class up. I found Suffragette, if far from flawless, a brave attempt in the other direction: trying to show what it was like to cross the line without privileges, resources, or protection.
    OK, I’m trailing my coat here, in gleeful anticipation (if you have time) of a vitriolic response…

  2. Vitriol? Moi? Should I have any such capacity, and I ain’t saying I do, it would be directed solely at those in public life (or official positions) whose cynicism and self-serving stupidity have IMO warranted it: categorically not at private individuals just because they take a different view of a film.

    That said …

    I can’t agree that the story’s ending in 1913 absolves it from exploring so seismic a fault line in the suffragette movement. War drums had been beating as early as 1910/11 and here was a splendid opportunity to problematise and investigate an issue feminisms old and new struggle with: class (and to lesser degree nationalism). It didn’t once take this opportunity. That it took the mildly unusual step of placing working class women at centre stage only exacerbates the sin, aligning the film with the ‘upstairs/downstairs’ tradition of unchallenging period story telling. I call it lazy.

    Lazy for its lack of ambition, content-wise. (Did it really do more than say “women were treated badly but fought magnificently”? I doubt it, and in 2015 that’s not enough. It puts Suffragette in the same bracket as recent efforts like those on Mandela and Wilberforce, which add nothing to simplistic – almost dishonestly so – but entrenched narratives.) And lazy in its approach to film making. My comparison with An Inspector Calls was context specific. You rightly describe the latter as in the tradition of middle class appeals for better behaviour toward the lower orders but that’s a matter of authorial worldview, whereas my point was explicitly about what drama can and cannot achieve. Say what you like about JBP; he was neither lazy nor formulaic. His willingness to move beyond a shallow empiricism that has always dogged the bland end of social realism allowed him to dig deep, turn up the heat and defy dominant expectations of his day. In all seriousness, can the same be said of Suffragette? I don’t think so. A better film is needed, and will surely come in due course.

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