Suffering, Suffocating Suffragettes

Suffragette 2015 posterSuffragette takes the enormous issue of gender inequality and squeezes it into as few filming locations as possible. Every scene takes place in the shadow of four high walls, under low ceilinged rooms, or in crowded, airless streets. In some ways the claustrophobic stage make the issue feel more localized, as if only these four women and a couple of replaceable followers are daring enough sneak out of their husbands’ homes. But in other ways it allows Suffragette’s storytellers to focus on the emotion of the individuals lobbying for the cause. Fighting for women’s right to vote in England tore families apart, ruined careers, destroyed reputations, and became the struggle of a lifetime for many women who had everything to lose.

Imagine you and your husband wake up before dawn every day, shuffle off to the same job, slave under a tyrant for 13 hours, then drag yourselves home to a one-room rental with a table, a bed, and a toddler. While your husband settles down with a drink, you fix dinner, do the laundry, dress the kid, and try not to pass out. What do you get for your extra responsibilities? Less pay, no legal ownership of your child, and a popular public belief that your needs are fully represented by your husband’s vote. Suffragette turns “Yes, Dear” into an uncomfortable prostate exam for the chest-puffing suit-wearers of 1912. Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is one such wife, mother, and laundress who may think women deserve the vote but is too afraid of embarrassing her husband to do anything about it. That is, until her colleagues and neighbours – namely fellow laundress, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), and apothecary, Edith (Helena Bonham Carter) – recruit her for the cause. Maud’s involvement, while peaceful at first, becomes increasingly rebellious as various opposing forces provoke her to extremism. From the community to the police to the government she trusted, it feels like everyone in power is afraid of those without it, and those without power are afraid of the path to obtaining it. Suddenly, the only way out of the hole Maud has dug herself into is to just keep digging until light breaks through from the other side.

Maud may sound like a government-hating radical, but Suffragette is adamant that you always see her side of the issue. She may be smashing windows, but it’s what she has to do to be heard by the politicians and, most importantly, the media. Throughout Suffragette we either follow Maud as her reputation crumbles, or we tag along with Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson) as he coordinates a surveillance attack on suspected Suffragettes. Steed is unconsciously looking for a worthy opponent among the Suffragettes and, as such, he creates one in the previously obedient, honest Maud. It is only after he hunts Maud to her wits’ end that she becomes the rebel he knew she had the potential to become. Had she been left alone perhaps Maud would still be living a blissfully sub-par life, rather than blowing up mailboxes or sewing flags for demonstrations. One could say that it is thanks to Mr. Steed that Maud becomes such an advocate for women’s rights. “Thank you, Steed.”

Maud discovers, however, that she has much more to lose than she originally thought.
Suffragette not only pits working class women against the authorities, but also against their communities. It is shocking to see how quickly everyone turns on Maud after one afternoon in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Suffragettes, however, are a team, and readily provide Maud with a sanctuary, reading material, work to do, and a surprising selection of hats and dresses.

While lacking a little in the soundtrack department (there were missed opportunities to deepen the message/emotion with a couple more compositions), Suffragette feels like a solid representation of London’s working class in 1912. It begins in an enclosed and stuffy laundrette with dirty skirts and flyaway hairs – so dramatic is this scene that I half expected the women to burst into song (“At the end of the day you’re another day older!”). Suffragette does its job of feeling like a truly authentic period piece. Although I do wonder why every day is line-dry white laundry day in London’s low-rent neighbourhoods…

If you’re planning to see Suffragette for Meryl Streep, don’t bother. Framed shots of her character’s portrait appear on the walls more often than the real lady shows up on screen. In fact, Maud’s son, George (Adam Michael Dodd) has four times more screen time than Streep. Given that she’s on the poster, this totally shocked me. I feel a little duped.

Suffragette offers us a periscope look into what it meant to be a working class English woman in 1912. Visually, Suffragette succeeds in demonstrating the claustrophobia these women must have felt physically, emotionally, and legally. It is a great historical piece, but it doesn’t completely wow me. I feel like there’s something missing, whether it’s the muted soundtrack, the potential for more secondary Suffragettes, or the curiously well-dressed Maud after she goes on the run. Suffragette is a passable high school study piece at 6.5/10.

What would the vote mean to you?

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