This was quite a powerful film which did a good job of conveying the determination of those involved in the suffragette movement and the sometimes horrifying way in which they were treated by the state. However, it was limited in its scope – and why, oh why, did it have to be so London-centric?
The film makers were certainly determined to show viewers just how much some of the suffragettes put into the campaign for votes for women, even sacrificing their own homes and family lives in some cases, and, without ever sensationalising it, to show us the sheer brutality used against these women by the state. Beatings – and, by most accounts, the beatings suffered by some women at demonstrations were even worse than those shown in the film – and the horrific use of force-feeding. Despite the treatment of the suffragettes, despite the deaths at Peterloo a century earlier, the 1066 and all that version of history teaches us that Britain became a democracy through peaceful parliamentary reform, none of that revolutionary carry-on that they had going on in France. It’s important that we remember that it actually wasn’t all that peaceful. There was even the sense of a war going on, with militant action being taken and the authorities keeping leading suffragettes under surveillance.
The film also reminded us that the struggle for women’s rights wasn’t only about the vote. The way in which mothers were denied rights in matters relating to their children, and discrimination against and even mistreatment of women in the workplace, were all covered – and we were reminded at the end that, in some countries, women are denied equal rights even now.
It ended with the death of Emily Wilding Davison at the Derby in 1913, the best-known incident in the history of the suffragette movement and the one which really drew mass attention, not just in the UK but across the world, to it. Moving original footage of vast numbers of people lining the streets as her funeral cortege passed through was included. For some reason, the character was only ever referred to or addressed by her first name until the end, as if they didn’t want you to realise who she was … unless I’m making something out of nothing there. It was patently obvious who she was, but I did get the feeling that it wasn’t meant to be! There is some debate over what happened on that day, whether or not she actually meant to give her life, and the film was ambiguous about that: the idea seemed to be that her intention was to present a WSPU banner to the King, and that she only decided to run out on to the racetrack when she was unable to gain admission to the Royal Enclosure. But surely she must have realised that running out at a racehorse galloping at full tilt was going to result in death or serious injury? And would anyone have made a decision like that just on the spot? We just can’t know for sure.
Moving on – was that the right point at which to end the film? Well, there wasn’t time to take the characters through the First World War, on to the granting of limited female suffrage in 1918 and on, at last, to the granting of the vote to women on the same terms as men in 1928. And maybe that was the problem with a lot of things: there just wasn’t time in the film to cover everything that arguably should have been covered. It was limited to a very small group of characters, and almost all of the action revolved around the central character, played very well by Carey Mulligan. We learned that she’d lost her mother when she was only 4, because of an industrial accident caused by working conditions, and that she’d then been abused by her boss for most of her girlhood. Then she became involved with the suffragette movement, was put in prison, and, as a result, was thrown out by her husband, who then had their child adopted by strangers. Yes, this all made very important points about the position and treatment of women and girls at the time, but did it all have to happen to one character?!
Furthermore, there was mention of the fact that the WSPU was split, with some members in favour of violent action and others opposed, but it was only really mentioned in passing; and the NUWSS – the suffragist movement, which worked on the principle of peaceful campaigning only – wasn’t mentioned at all. And we were told that the husband of the character played by Helena Bonham Carter belonged to the Men’s League in support of votes for women but, other than that, we were given the impression that everyone who wasn’t an active suffragette was directly opposed to the suffragette movement, which certainly wasn’t the case. On top of that, the fact that, at that time, many men were also denied the right to vote, was pretty much completely ignored. I do appreciate that there’s only so much you can fit into 100 minutes or so, but I did feel that the scope of this film could have been wider.
It could certainly have been wider geographically. All right, it was based around a few fictional characters, and it was probably easier to have them being Londoners so that there were no issues about how they were going to get to Westminster to protest, etc … but one of the biggest problems in this country is the way in which politics is so focused on London, and I wasn’t very impressed that this film went so completely along those lines. Come on – the WSPU was founded in Manchester, the Pankhursts came from Manchester, the militancy campaign got going after Christabel Pankhurst and Saddleworth millworker Annie Kenney were thrown out of the Free Trade Hall and carted off to Strangeways … and the directors of this film couldn’t even get Meryl Streep to play Emmeline Pankhurst with a Manchester accent! (I don’t know what accent she was trying to use, incidentally: it was very strange!) Emmeline Pankhurst only actually featured in one scene, and Sylvia Pankhurst, who was heavily involved in the East End of London, didn’t feature at all.
All right, I’m being parochial! My old school is very proud of the fact that Christabel, Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst were once pupils there. They never tell you that all three of them, especially Christabel, hated the place … er, but never mind! I remember my wonderful history teacher proudly telling us that the Pankhurst sisters were amongst our predecessors at the school, whilst we were studying the suffragette movement as part of our GCSE course … and then being rather bemused when someone helpfully responded by pointing out that Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins was a suffragette. Sorry, I’ve got totally off the point now! To get back to the film, it would have been nice to have had at least a bit more acknowledgment of the fact that the suffragette movement didn’t, and British politics in general don’t, revolve solely around London.
However, as I’ve said, you can only show so much in an average length film, and this film did make a lot of very important points. Some critics have said that it’s too serious, but what do they want, jokes and laughter about firebombing and force-feeding? It does a good job, even if it could perhaps have done a better one.