I’ve just been to see Suffragette. It’s a moving film, and a thought provoking one.
[SPOILER ALERT: I’ll be talking about plot points throughout the movie].
The film’s been panned in some of the reviews I read (see The Guardian and Vanity Fair, and others at Rotten Tomatoes). There’s always room to criticise particular aspects of the treatment, and how a movie has handled different issues. But regardless, it’s touching on an incredibly important historical moment, and one that’s fascinating.
One thing I found interesting was how Suffragette focussed its narrative. An obvious comparison point for me was Selma. That was also a movie about a political movement, that focussed its narrative through the lens of a particular place and time in history, rather than any one character. In contrast, Suffragette follows a single character over the course of the movie.
I think that’s actually quite a powerful technique. It doesn’t capture the whole movement (which I think would be impossible in a movie, and challenging even in an extended mini-series), but it captures an individual’s experience, which I think is one of the most crucial parts for a story.
In turn, that individual’s experience is a really interesting one. Maud Watts is a composite character, rather than a historical one. She starts as a working class woman accidentally witnessing a suffragette protest (rocks thrown at windows). After she sees her male boss (factory owner?) abusing a young girl, she goes to her first meeting. From there, the whole movie is a series of decisions that she takes – implicitly or explicitly – that lead her to greater involvement with the suffragette movement. By the end she’s lighting bombs, and there on the race-course when a fellow activist is killed by the King’s horse.
It’s interesting to see that story in an Australian context, where the government recently released a pamphlet on anti-radicalisation. It was widely criticised for including an example of someone who took part in non-violent protest about environmental issues. But an underlying concept in the booklet, I understand, was of the trajectory that an individual takes to reach the point of ‘radicalisation’. I couldn’t spot a standardised definition in the booklet – it seems to talk about ‘ a person’s beliefs move from being relatively conventional to being radical, and they want a drastic change in society’, but also mentions on the same page ‘people … [who] use violence to promote their cause’. In effect, though, that is exactly the trajectory that Suffragette is mapping out. Perhaps in doing so for a cause that every one would now agree was an appropriate one, the movie is in some way ‘radical’?
The history and context for how violence was used by the Suffragettes is a complex one, that I don’t know much about. It’d be interesting to learn more – Wikipedia suggests that there was some form of campaigning from the 1860’s.
Another aspect I though the movie did well was capturing that in shifting to the Suffragette community, Maud also experienced significant loss. Her husband kicks her out, and she loses access to her son, who’s ultimately given to foster parents. A third aspect that I think it’s harder for us to grasp today in a more atomised society, is the opprobrium that she would have received from neighbours- not necessarily friends, but people she knew and saw on a daily basis, people watching from the windows as she came home.
One thing I thought was missing was the power of the media. It’s touched on briefly in the movie, as a prompt before the suffragettes head for the Derby. But I imagine their ability to communicate through the media, and to communicate directly, were crucial.
A final thought that occurs is that the music doesn’t carry Suffragette in the same way it did Selma. ‘Glory’ by John Legend is an incredible piece of music, and even in its abbreviated form, it lifted Selma.
There isn’t a comparable anthem in Suffragette – the most I noticed the music was the heartbeat thud of the bass at tense moments.