The atmosphere at the Picturehouse is uplifting at the best of times, but the opening screening of Suffragette on Monday was brimming with an assortment of eager feminists. Clad in ‘Votes for women’ sashes and floor length silk dresses, the staff looked like they had stepped out of the movement.
Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is what you would expect from a fictitious suffragette; she’s been victim to the sexual advances of her crooked boss, while loyal to her wet-blanket husband emasculated by the thought of her being more than a devoted mother and a laundry worker in the East End. But it is important to illustrate this collective oppression, causing recognition that the majority of the movement consisted of suffragettes in a predicament where drastic personal sacrifices were made. So centralizing Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Steep) could have been more riveting to watch, but not a story I feel is more worth telling. Pankhurst appears briefly elevated on a balcony to rally the crowd, but the real momentum is gathered from that faceless mass she addresses – the women that starved themselves, were beaten, were ostracized, would kill and were killed for the right to vote. Mulligan serves this amalgamated mass from bystander to activist well.
It’s been criticized for being one-dimensional; casting all men as selfish misogynists and overplaying the contention of Maud’s mothering instincts with her burgeoning political voice. But it is successful in exhibiting the class divide: there are the connections that were vital, but the gut-wrenching scene of force-feeding unveils that these ordinary women were certainly at the frontline. This brings into question the criticism whether Streep’s brief appearance was mismarketed as a significant role, or was to challenge the perception of the face of the movement through the cast. Finishing with the tragic spectacle of Emily Davison’s death, the woman who ran in front of George V’s horse at the 1913 Derby, it is almost as difficult to watch as the original footage. The shocking final credits showing the statistics of women’s suffrage across the globe indicates that Davison’s legacy of ‘deeds not words’ tragically still resonates.
Suffragette should not merely evoke pity. Women fought dirty for the democratic gender equality that so many of us are guilty of taking for granted today. Its purpose is to inspire.