Sunday, 8 November 2015

Suffragette (film)

Spent this weekend catching up with a friend. We decided to while away a dark night by going for a meal followed by a trip to the cinema. We chose the film Suffragette and hoped that Hollywood hadn't changed the course of history as so can often become the case!

Carey Mulligan plays the fictional role of Maud Watts, a 24 year old who has worked in the local laundry since she was a child. One day she is asked to deliver a parcel to the West End, and as she does, she is caught up with some suffragettes throwing stones at windows, one of whom (Violet) she recognises from the laundry.

Leaving work a few days later, she hears the wife of a local MP encouraging the women to speak out to parliament to help secure the vote for women. Violet advises she will give a testimony to the court, however, she has been badly beaten, and it is decided she would not give the right impression if she was allowed to deliver her testimony, so Maud ends up speaking instead. Having given her testimony, Maud is spurred into the hope that parliament will listen to women and they will get the vote, she therefore heads off to parliament to see if they have won the right to vote. David Lloyd George addresses the crowd to say parliament has listened to them, but they have not secured the right to vote. The crowd turns ugly and the women are beaten mercilessly by the police and arrested. Maud has to endure a week in prison, and upon returning home she finds she has been ostracised by both her neighbours and her husband.

Maud promises her husband she will have no more to do with the suffragette movement, however, when she was in jail she met with Emily Wilding Davison (real person) who was a confident of Emmeline Pankhurst, the British political activist and head of the Suffragette movement. Maud is invited to listen to Pankhurst speak at a rally, and once again is arrested but this time she is delivered straight back to her husband. Her husband is livid with Maud, and throws her out onto the street and decides he will take sole responsibility for their young son. At this moment we are shown a thumbnail view of what domestic life was like for women at the time. They would do as their husbands said, and they had little say in matters including what was right for their children. The law favoured the husband and the law was the law, no further discussion was necessary.

Now she is destitute, Maud becomes move and more involved with the suffragette movement and the women become more radical in trying to get their voices heard. The suffragettes start by targeting methods of communication, cutting telegraph wires and bombing post boxes, to the more drastic bombing of Lloyd George's holiday home. Non of the activities the women embroil themselves in get reported in the newspapers, and therefore they believe even more drastic action is required. They decide they will get publicity if they travel to the Epsom Derby, and wave their banners at the cameras recording the event. Tragically whilst the race is in full flight, Emily steps onto the track and in front of King George V's horse and is trampled to death.

The funeral of Emily Wilding Davison was recorded on TV and in the newspapers, and it was inspiring to watch the current film transform into the actual black and white coverage of the event. This small element of the production really brought home the fact that whilst most of the film was fictional, it highlighted what these women of history went through to secure women the right to vote. What was particularly interesting was at the end of the film it showed what year women were given the vote in different countries, some only recently, and the fact that in the middle east, women are still not allowed to vote living in the shadow of men.

This is a movie that has not had any glitz or glamour thrown at it, it is a simple portrayal of what London in 1913 was like. It tells an important story, and opens up a good forum for discussing whether the intentions of the activists have been achieved. Women do now have the vote in the UK, but they are not treated as equals to men. In some respects the tables have turned full circle, and now it is generally the woman who will make decisions about the welfare of their children in any separation and the man now has to seek equality.

It also opens up the question of militancy. We view these women as heroines, but it can't be forgotten that peaceful protesting turned into wanton destruction. Houses and refreshment rooms were targeted by arsonists, museum exhibits attacked (British Museum and National Gallery), bombs placed in Westminster Abbey and St Pauls Cathedral and the attacks on communications as shown in the film. We see students rioting in modern day Britain for their beliefs and we castigate them.  Are they really that far removed from the suffragettes? As I say, the film opened up the possibilities of endless debates, which is often a sign of a good film!


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