Suffragette – Movie Review
My first memory of hearing the term ‘suffragette’ was when as a young child, I watched Mary Poppins and listened to the apple-cheeked Mrs. Banks as she cheerily sang about the fight to get women the right to vote in the song Sister Suffragette. Surely fans of the movie will recall her and her maid harmonizing arm in arm ignoring a flustered Katie Nana, “Our daughter’s daughters will adore us/ And they’ll sing in grateful chorus/ Well done Sister Suffragette!”. Little did I realized that we would grow to learn about the pioneering suffragette’s who did more than just sing – they laid their lives in the fight for women to be granted the right to vote and opened the doors for a movement that continues to this day, fighting for the rights of women to be seen and treated as equals.
From the 17th to the 19th of February, Family Planning Association (FPA) Sri Lanka hosted a film and literary festival titled ‘Endangering Yahapalanaya’ screening films that centered broadly on the themes of sexuality and gender. The first of the films screened was the 2015 release Suffragette, a British historical period drama film about women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom. With Academy Award Nominee, Carey Mulligan and Academy Award Winner, Helena Bonham Carter in starring roles, the film has no shortage of excellent acting, both in ability and what was delivered onscreen. What was disappointing was that despite the expectations set by the advertising of the film and its trailer, Meryl Streep’s role in portraying the suffragette icon Emmeline Pankhurst amounts to hardly any screen time. Despite the passionate and stirring speech she makes in her portrayal, it fails to dampen the disappointment upon realizing that this is all we will see of her in this role.
The screening was preceded with a keynote address from Professor Savitri Goonesekere which helped place the film in context for us, especially considering that Sri Lanka was granted universal suffrage in 1931 and thus was not part of the key struggle of the movement, the vote for women. Professor Goonesekara reminded us of two major ways in which the movement impacted Sri Lanka – firstly it brought from across the shores the pioneering suffragettes who through the fight for the vote for women championed an overreaching ideal – female empowerment. In this regard women like Lillian Nixon (Ladies College) and Marie Musaeus Higgins (Musaeus) came to Sri Lanka and empowered young women through education with the passion of the suffragettes, creating institutions that continue to do so decades later. Schools across the country exist from this period, including Uduvil Ladies College and Chundikuli Girls’ College. The second way was that through the suffragette agenda, British Parliament was forced to recognize the rights of women to their property and to access professions, etc. and formulated laws to do so. As Sri Lanka was a British colony at that time, many of these laws were automatically passed on to our legal systems and exist to this very day.
The film was certainly a worthy view, and an eye-opening one, which will have even those who have worked in or studied these issues, fighting back tears. What perhaps hit me the hardest were the strong parallels between what the suffragettes endured in fighting for their rights and how many groups were still viewed and treated in this manner till date – from tokenistic testimonial hearings and consultations led by the state that yield little to no results, to the sheer brutality, harassment and intimidation that the police and authorities subject them to in an attempt to silence their voices. Does that sound familiar? It should.
Any questions one could have about the methods that the suffragettes employed, including arson and damage of public property, were beautifully mitigated with the inclusion of a key dialogue such as “We don’t want to be law breakers we want to be law makers!”. My personal favorite comes from Mrs. Pankhurst’s speech – standing on the balcony, a wanted fugitive in hiding and raising her arms to cheers from the impassioned women who looked to her as their leader, she makes a stirring speech and we see the police drawing closer. Before she drops her veil to vanish, she delivers a line with the panache that only an actress of Meryl’s Streep’s magnitude could make so great, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”.
Some have critiqued the occasionally slow pace of the film, but it is often a given in historical period films and I for one welcomed it as a chance to gather myself. What I did take issue with was the occasional ‘Hollywood’ overtones that seemed hard to avoid but resulted in compromising of the film’s authenticity. This was especially notable in Carey Mulligan’s character, Maude Watts whose journey from a battered laundress to being rejected by her husband and losing her child through his decisions that he is legally able to make without her consent, resulted in her transformation to a radical ‘solider’ in the movement. It’s a struggle to believe that in a period of less than four actual meetings she is jailed, meets Emmeline Pankhurst who tells personally her to “Never surrender, never give up the fight!” and before she has even attended one meeting she has been flagged as a person of interest by police surveillance. This had me rolling my eyes at the typical drama of it all and also distracted from the more authentic journeys of other suffragettes whose importance we fail to fully absorb until later in the film.
The film did however mange to subtly touch on the aspect of privilege in varying forms (economic, social etc.) and how that could impact the ability of individuals to be active against the odds. One cannot fail to mention a key moment when Helena Bonham Carter’s character Edith New is locked in a cupboard by her husband to prevent her from attending a demonstration for fear of her failing health. This was particularly poignant as through the film he had been portrayed as the supportive husband, even after having been arrested for aiding his wife’s activities as a suffragette. This moment could gently raise a dilemma that the loved ones of activists and those fighting against the grain often grapple with. How far is too far? When does the time come (if it does come) where you need to save somebody from themselves? What becomes of those you leave behind in this life?
All failings in my mind were forgiven when the final scene of the film gave way to real life footage of the exact moment being shown, giving the audience a crashing reminder that this was not fiction – it was very real history. Often with films, even when they portray real life events, the fictionalization allows us to forget that this is real, and Suffragette reminded us crushingly of the fact that this was real, all of it from the brutality onwards. The film in my opinion is a must see, it holds much valuable context today when women are still forced to take to the streets to demand autonomy over their bodies and their rights. We do after all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.
Previously published in News Express Sri Lanka and republished here with permission.
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