Given that the last time Meryl Streep appeared in a film scripted by Suffragette writer Abi Morgan it was as Maggie Thatcher in The Iron Lady, you could probably disappear down a very Alice-like rabbit hole pondering the psycho-social implications of her showing up here, albeit briefly, as Emmeline Pankhurst.
You might also feel a little uneasy about the prominence afforded Streep in the pre-release publicity when her on-screen time only amounts to a few minutes, or that Natalie Press as Emily Wilding Davison appears hardly at all before her death under the hooves of the King’s horse at the 1931 Derby finally propelled the suffragettes onto the front page. You might even wonder how on earth Carey Mulligan’s (made-up) radicalised laundry worker Maud Watts comes to be on the streets at all, instead of being banged up after taking a hot iron to the hand of her reptilian boss, or where exactly the apparently-empty London church might be where she takes refuge for great swathes of time, unnoticed by the watching authorities.
But such quibbles would, of course, be joylessly missing the point. We’re in film-land here, where Oscar-itis is always on the horizon for middle-brow pics like this. It’s all about the emotional one-two of high-flown performances and high-blown concerns, aimed at a discernible, right-thinking audience of a certain age, the sort of people who ‘remember when films were about things’. So damn narrative coherence and the like.
I may mock a little from my safe, middle-class (alright, and male) vantage point, but there’s no doubt that, despite it all, Suffragette does pack something of a punch. I defy anyone not to blanch at the forced feeding of hunger strikers, or not to be astonished and righteously appalled at the closing credits where the state of women’s suffrage around the world is something of a scroll of shame.
It will come as no surprise that votes for women were not freely offered by the men of the British ruling class, even after years of peaceful agitation for female emancipation. But it is useful and instructive to be reminded just how hard and how dirtily so many of those men fought against them and, moreover, for how long. At the very least, that’s a corrective that Suffragette efficiently offers. Eventually, women had to resort to civil disobedience and even – heaven forfend – destruction of property. It’s at more or less this point in history that we’re introduced to the film’s central heroine, Maud Watts (a doughty performance from Mulligan).
Watts is a devoted mother, a loving wife to Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and an apparently valued employee at a laundry run by the obviously unsavoury Mr Taylor (Geoff Bell). But she’s no fool and, as Morgan and director Sarah Gavron make glaringly obvious, could hardly help but be radicalised by her escalating experiences of the arrogance and abuse meted out by men, from lying government ministers to casually insulting workmates and neighbours. Her long-suffering friend Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) introduces her to agitators like the pharmacist and covert munitions expert Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) and she even sees the sainted Mrs Pankhurst herself (Meryl Streep) speak. But she also finds herself targeted by secret policeman and surveillance expert, Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson), a man used to foiling Fenians and anarchists but by no means as barbaric as most of the men opposing the suffragettes.
Of course, it’s not a scrupulously accurate documentary or even a bio-pic, so anyone who wants to differ with its point of view, can, as usual, use that as a stick to beat it with. But it powerfully portrays the struggle and suffering of the real working class women, who, unlike their more middle-class leaders, suffered not only brutal imprisonment but also unemployment, poverty and, often, family breakdown as a result of their stance.
It’s not a great film, in all honesty, but it is a forceful and useful reminder that so many of the human rights (and not merely votes for women) we might take for granted have been won quite recently and only through courageous and concerted effort. Nor is the struggle necessarily over.
*Suffragette screens from Monday October 12, 2015 at Manchester’s HOME as part of a national season of films and special events entitled The Time Is Now. The film and events programme will run in cinemas and venues across the country from this month until January 2016, focusing on the role women play in affecting change and offering both an historical and global perspective on the continuing struggle for gender equality. Following the lead of the suffragettes themselves, there will also be a zine newsletter, available online and in print, with specially-commissioned pieces by high profile women, as well as interviews with the likes of Marina And The Diamonds, and Kate Nash. Edited by artist and zinester Cherry Styles, who runs the Chapess zine, as well as Ione Gamble, founder and editor of zine Polyester, it will be available in participating venues and online from mid October.