Suffragette

One of the things that has always bothered me about Disney’s Mary Poppins is its depiction of the women’s suffrage movement. Mrs. Banks’ involvement is implied to be a pastime for an idle middle class housewife, something her husband indulges her in and frankly a running gag, not a struggle for a basic human right. Even worse, it was probably, at least in part, a dig at the feminist movement going on when the film was released. From the beginnings of the suffrage movement through the sixties to now it has always been part of the strategy of the male establishment to trivialize and infantilize the struggles of women to obtain equal rights.
Imagine the frustration those early women activists must have felt, knowing they were every bit as smart as the men, but being denied a say in the direction of the country. And worse, having to convince a majority of men to bestow what should have been a right all along. They begin with consciousness-raising, speeches and pamphlets, but when the message falls on deaf ears, they move to civil disobedience and finally to destructive protests, being careful only to destroy property and not people, although they come close to that line.
Suffragette is based on true events. It stars Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts, a working class woman who falls in with the suffrage movement in 1914 when she befriends a member of a local cell at work. Maud and her husband Sonny, played by Ben Whishaw, both work at a laundry and live in a drab tenement building with their young son. The film ably demonstrates how perilous their position is, especially hers. She’s worked at the laundry since she was seven, but one slip up could put her out on the street. She is the victim of a system that she has no right to try and amend with her vote.
Most of the women in the cell are not pampered middle class housewives like Mrs. Banks. They are working class people, living on subsistence wages. They may not seem to have much to lose but to them it is everything they have. And they take serious physical risks. The police are brutal in breaking up their protests and meetings.
The script by Abi Morgan takes what is a composite of historical figures and events and pieces them together into a tight narrative. The director, Sarah Gavron puts the project together nicely, getting terrific performances from her cast. They make their point but the film doesn’t come across as excessively preachy. You really care about Maud and her troubles.
Carey Mulligan is a fine young actress and she does a tremendous job here. She conveys Maud’s journey from not wanting anything to do with the movement to ardent supporter and participant brilliantly. There’s a scene where she’s listening to a speech by Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the Suffrage movement, played by Meryl Streep. The look of inspiration on Maud’s face reminds me of my mother when she would talk about meeting Grace Hopper at a workshop. It really got across the fact that these women are starved for leadership and role models.
Other performances stand out as well. Helena Bonham Carter shows intelligence and determination as Mrs. Ellyn, wife to the owner of an apothecary shop but who is really the one who mixes the medicines and serves as a doctor to the poor people in the neighborhood. She is the fiery one in the cell who wants to push the envelope as far as possible. Brenden Gleeson plays police inspector Arthur Steed and he portrays a complicated man. He sees the world as it is with all its injustices. If you catch him in the right moment, he might even admit to a little sympathy for the women. But he doesn’t imagine for a moment that anything can change. Plus he’s a policeman and he is going to do his job preserving the peace these women are intent on disturbing.
Suffragette is a dark film, depicting a world lit mostly by candlelight. The camera moves and shakes especially during the violent scenes. The sets are gritty and realistic looking. I’m not sure how much of that was done digitally but there must have been a lot and it looks seamless. The costumes and props all look great. The only quibble I have is that Carey Mulligan looks too pretty to have led the life she describes and be twenty four with a life expectancy of only a few more years.
This is a powerful film, as well as entertaining, informative and inspirational. And shame on Walt Disney for making fun of these women.

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4 Responses to “Suffragette”


  1. 1 Mark Anderson November 10, 2015 at 4:25 am

    Your mother met GRACE MURRAY HOPPER!?!?

  2. 2 theotherebert November 10, 2015 at 12:52 pm

    You may recall that Mom was a programmer/analyst at DCSC. If I remember correctly, they brought in Ms. Hopper for a workshop or lecture that Mom attended. It really had an effect on her. She talked about it for a long time afterwards. And since Mom was also in the Navy during the war, she probably strongly identified with Ms. Hopper.

  3. 3 Carey Mulligan June 24, 2017 at 2:48 pm

    Whenever people say that first wave feminism was peaceful, the examples of bombing and fighting is what comes to mind. First wave feminism was not this peaceful, sunshine and rainbows movement as everyone seems to believe, these women got their hands dirty. We talk about the blatant misandry that comes with feminists today and we seem to forget that some of these women hated men just as much as some modern feminists.

  4. 4 theotherebert June 24, 2017 at 5:16 pm

    I suspect that this is not the real Carey Mulligan. WordPress automatically tagged the comment as spam and the link goes to a sincere looking Carey Mulligan fansite. But the comment doesn’t read like a robot wrote it and obviously isn’t selling anything so I approved it. Actually it makes a good point.
    But of course I don’t keep up on that sort of thing and I very easily could be missing something obvious.
    And on the off chance that it is really Carey Mulligan, wow what an honor! I’ve been a fan since the weeping angels Dr. Who episode.


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