Directed by Sarah Gavron
U.K., 2015, 106 min.
Reviewed by Anne Eggebroten
This historical drama has it all: sexual abuse, workplace violence, riots, police brutality, spousal abuse, and torturous force-feeding. It opens on October 12, 2015 in the United Kingdom and October 23 in selected theaters in the US.
One climactic moment is the death of Emily Wilding Davison on June 4, 1913, when she tries to attach a women’s rights banner to the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby horse race in England.
“We tried to make the story accessible to working women today,” explained screenwriter Abi Morgan. Accessible it is, especially to young women or men who need a lot of action to sit through an hour and 46 minutes of history.
To those of us who watched Shoulder to Shoulder, the BBC six-part mini-series that aired in 1974, seeing the new film may seem like drinking a can of condensed milk.
We encounter the women’s suffrage movement in Britain through the eyes of a fictional young woman working in an industrial laundry about 1911–13. Maud Watts is movingly portrayed by Carey Mulligan as she transforms from an overworked laborer, wife, and mother into a woman repeatedly jailed for attending demonstrations.
Her conversion into a militant is only believable when we learn about the years of sexual abuse she has endured from her employer. Maud’s husband begins as a loving man, but can’t tolerate his wife’s absences and soon banishes her, even denying access to their son. When the homeless Maud repeatedly takes refuge in a church, a subtle and sympathetic tie to religion and divine justice is established. Her emotional losses form the heart of this delicately balanced film, giving us both historical information and human cost.
Courage also appears throughout. When her friend Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) can’t testify before Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Parliament because of the black eye and facial cut inflicted by her husband the night before, Maud speaks with innocence and pathos.
Yes, this drama is well worth seeing, whether for a refresher course in the British suffragist movement or for an introduction.
When Meryl Streep shouts, “I incite this meeting and all the women in Britain to rebellion,” it’s a great moment. She portrays Emmeline Pankhurst, grand dame of the British suffrage movement.
The feminist phenomenon of creating and producing this film is also worth noting.
Meryl, along with screenwriter Abi Morgan and director Sarah Gavron, participated in an open-air panel about the film on September 5, 2015, at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. Their passion for the message of the film was evident.
“My grandmother would often say ‘Fools’ names and fools’ faces often appear in public places,’” said Meryl, explaining that it was shameful in 1913 (the time of the film) for women to stand up in public and try to make their voices heard. Her grandmother was 28 in that year.
Now the filmmakers all are adamant about women having their voices heard.
Abi quoted Malala Yousafzai in her address to the UN: “One child, one teacher, one pen, and one book can change the world.” The documentary He Called Me Malala was also being shown as part of the festival.
Prime Minister Henry Asquith (1852–1928) was famously opposed to giving women the right to vote, but his great-granddaughter Helena Bonham Carter plays with relish the role of Edith Ellyn (Edith Bessie New), suffragist leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) who broke windows at 10 Downing Street.
Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of Emmeline, also showed up at the set on occasion to lend her support.
Sarah recalled that her grandfather considered women second-class citizens and said of one female relative who had to leave school at an early age, “It’s a shame she had brains.”
Abi reported having a great aunt who won a place at Cambridge University but was not allowed to go and take classes. Years after her aunt’s disappointment, Abi wrote the screenplay for Iron Lady, the 2011 film in which Meryl played Thatcher.
Meryl recounted a Margaret Thatcher anecdote: “Very early on she learned that she couldn’t get a credit card without her husband’s signature, so she changed the law.”
Meryl’s mother influenced her daughter’s outlook as a woman: “I remember my mother would go and ask for money . . . I remember thinking, ‘I will never have to ask anybody for money. I will have my own.’”
Of her grandmother, Meryl recalls that she had been very involved in her children’s education, wanting to vote for the school board, but could only tell her husband whom to vote for. “No one was smarter or more engaged in her community, but she couldn’t even vote for dog catcher.”
Suffragette is the first film in history to be filmed in the Houses of Parliament in London, with permission of the members of Parliament.
“They chose our project,” Meryl said. “We staged a riot in the courtyard of the House of Commons.” In fact, the producers engaged a battalion of military police trained to break up riots and put them in 1910 uniforms. They performed with gusto. “As I drove off in my carriage, I saw a scene of real mayhem,” Meryl admitted.
After more than forty years of working peacefully for the vote, the suffragists turned to nonviolent resistance. In response, their opponents twisted breasts, lifted up skirts, and threw women to the ground. Women went limp instead of returning violence.
“Mahatma Gandhi saw how nonviolent resistance worked,” Meryl said. “The women attacked property but not human life. No one died [violently], apart from Emily Davison.”
The women did break lines of communication by bombing mailboxes. “They also went out to five of the finest golf courses around London and destroyed the greens,” Meryl laughed.
She recently wrote to every member of Congress asking them to back the Equal Rights Amendment and sent them each a book, Equal Means Equal by Jessica Neuwirth, president of the ERA Coalition.
When someone in the audience said the ERA seems to be a losing cause, she answered, “Yeah, it will happen, though. We are one half of the human race, and you can’t stop us. It’s like the line Maud says toward the end, ‘But we will win.’”
She also cited Patricia Arquette as an ally. In her acceptance speech after winning a 2015 Oscar for her role in Boyhood, Arquette spoke for wage equality for women “and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”
During the Q&A, another person asked skeptically, “Do we need the ERA?”
Meryl rose to the occasion with an impassioned speech:
I just think it needs to be set down in law. . . . Law matters. Symbols matter. Hammurabi set about to change things thousands of years ago by writing a law: ‘If a woman speaks out of turn, she shall have a brick smashed into her face.’ It’s good to have things set down in law.
She cited the four-part series The Ascent of Woman by Amanda Foreman being shown this fall on BBC.
“Why are you optimistic?” asked someone.
Because we are at 17 to 30% in every profession. In decision-making bodies, we’re still a minority. . . . I think that the conversation changes when women are at the table. We talk about care of the elderly, care of the earth. . . . If Malala were sitting in on the decisions of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, things would change. Things are getting better.
To a question about the lack of female screenwriters and directors, she gave advice: “Never take no for an answer. If anyone says, ‘You can’t ______,’ just ignore them. I just say, ‘Don’t worry, I can.’”
“Is there any message you want us to walk away with from this film?” came a final question.
Meryl’s answer: “Yes. Make sure you use your vote.”
Reviewer Anne Eggebroten is a founding member of EEWC-CFT and writes from Telluride, Colorado, when she’s not in California.