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cultural vandal | by maryann johanson

Suffragette movie review: then they fight you (#LFF2015)

Suffragette green light

The first feature film ever about the women who fought for their right to vote is glorious. It is angry and passionate and defiant. It is essential.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for stories about women; love the cast

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Votes for women!

Campaigns to include women in the democratic process via voting have been going on for centuries. There are places in the world that we would consider the height of civilization — *cough* Switzerland *cough* 1971 *cough* — that have only just afforded women this basic human dignity within my lifetime. (I’m not terribly old.) For the first time ever, women in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to vote in local elections happening this December. This fight has concerned half the human race and won’t officially end until that first Saudi woman casts her ballot a couple of months from now.

And yet there has never before been a feature film about this issue. There has never been a feature film about all the many women with indefatigable ambition and charismatic personalities who led the fight, the ordinary women who fought the fight, and the inspiring women who died for the fight. There was a 2004 American TV movie, Iron Jawed Angels. That’s it. One TV movie. How many movies — on the big screen and the small one — have there been about the American Revolution, the American Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Atlantic slave trade and the abolition movement? About male politicians and activists and martyrs? There have been more movies about dogs in the military than there have been about women fighting for their right to vote. Until this very moment, there were more theatrical films about the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983 than there were about suffragettes (there was one, 1986’s Heartbreak Ridge).

But now there is Suffragette, the first film ever about the British women who fought a long battle for their right to vote. And it is glorious. It is angry and passionate and defiant. It has to be, because this is not just history. The details may have changed, but women are still fighting all over the world for their right to be seen as fully human: to go to school, to get necessary health care, to be paid fairly for our work, to simply be listened to and believed when we talk about the realities of our lives. Suffragette is no staid, respectable costume drama, not in the vigor and grit with which it is presented, not in the sheer entertainment value it provides alongside its history lesson, and certainly not in its absolute relevance for today.

Carey Mulligan’s (Far from the Madding Crowd, Inside Llewyn Davis) Maud Watts — who works in a laundry in 1912 London here — stands up a little straighter in a mirror and finds new pride and purpose in her life as she slowly becomes radicalized into the suffragette movement… and that’s a transformation that girls and women everywhere today will recognize and appreciate. Anne-Marie Duff’s (Molly Moon and the Incredible Book of Hypnotism, Before I Go to Sleep) Violet Miller, the coworker of Maud’s who first introduces her to the suffragette movement, sidelines herself from the ongoing protests for a reason that many women would admit to identifying with, along with the sinking heart that goes along with it, if only it still weren’t taboo to confess to such a thing even now.

Brendan Gleeson’s (Song of the Sea, Edge of Tomorrow) police inspector Arthur Steed, who is surveilling “these damned women” who are being such a nuisance in agitating for their right to vote, warns his colleagues that one of them, Helena Bonham Carter’s (Cinderella, The Lone Ranger) Edith Ellyn, is “educated,” and that “that makes her particularly dangerous”… and the palpable fear of women who know their own minds is as familiar as a nasty tweet or a vile blog comment. Steed tells his officers, after a suffragette protest, “Don’t bother arresting them; let their husbands deal with them”… and the presumption that a woman’s rightful place is under the rule of a man stings because it is one that remains all too prevalent today. (The suffragettes get arrested plenty, though, and the indignities that they are subjected to in prison are terrible.)

The British government here controls the press and quashes news of the civil disobedience and vandalism the suffragettes engage in, such as throwing rocks through shop windows and blowing up mailboxes… and it’s difficult not to see a similar deliberate stifling of women’s acts and deeds in how stories of the suffragettes have been erased from our pop culture and general knowledge. (You probably weren’t aware of how the suffragettes were treated in prison. You won’t be able to forget after this movie.) How is it possible that a woman such as Emmeline Pankhurst (played here, in one brief but powerful scene, by Meryl Streep: Ricki and the Flash, The Giver), whose shift as an activist from asking men nicely for her human rights to demanding them in a violent and unignorable manner, isn’t as well known as Gandhi or Malcolm X or Nelson Mandela?

Could it be because we don’t want women to know that they have the power to change their lives for the better? Could it be because we don’t want women to stand up and speak out?

Women struggling to have their voices heard? It’s still happening today, certainly when it comes to getting our stories told on the big screen, and so it’s radical that the storytellers here are women: director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan (The Invisible Woman, Shame). While stories of men who make history become mythic to the point of absurdity in the constant retelling– think George Washington and the cherry tree, and Abraham Lincoln and his log cabin — women have to continually reinvent the history of what women have done, have to reinvent the stories of women’s achievements because no one alive now has heard them before, not in any significant way. We can hope that Suffragette may finally change that dismal track record, that now a floodgate has opened and we’ll tell these stories and all the other tales of women so often that they become archetypal representations of themselves just like happens to men. I cannot overstate how totally essential this movie is. Girls and women need the inspiration and the energy Suffragette offers. We need the legend. We have always needed it.

Votes for women!

viewed during the 59th BFI London Film Festival


See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Suffragette for its representation of girls and women.


green light 5 stars

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Suffragette (2015)
US/Can release: Oct 23 2015
UK/Ire release: Oct 12 2015

MPAA: rated PG-13 for some intense violence, thematic elements, brief strong language and partial nudity
BBFC: rated 12A (infrequent strong language, moderate violence, a scene of force-feeding)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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