Thursday, 22 October 2015

Suffering Suffragettes

Sarah Gavron's Suffragette, from a screenplay by Abi Morgan, is a curiously vague film. By that I mean it's central interest, what it is really about, never fully comes into focus. Is it an attempt to rescue the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) from historical neglect, a celebration of democracy, or a paean to female activism? There are gestures towards each, but ultimately the film fails to settle. This isn't to say that it's not an interesting work, but that it has a strangely abstracted air, a bit like a graphic novel. If there is a theme, it is - to borrow the style of Batman and Robin - suffering suffragettes. There's even a scene of police brutality where the Foley sound effects (thud, kapow) definitely cross over into the realm of the cartoonish.

The story revoles around a young working-class mother, Maud Watts, who through a series of coincidences and accidents becomes an activist, jeopardising both her job in a laundry and her family. Played by Carey Mulligan, Maud is a Zelig-like character who is interweaved with actual events such as the firebombing of Lloyd George's country house and the death of Emily Wilding Davis in 1913. While many have praised the film for centring on working-class "footsoldiers" rather than being a hagiography of Emmeline Pankhurst, this is a misleading representation of a movement that was in many ways hostile to working women. Meryl Streep's appearance as "the leader" is little more than a cameo, presumably necessary to raise funding (and perhaps a favour held over from The Iron Lady).

Founded in 1903 to pursue a more militant campaign than the non-violent National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, the WSPU was a middle-class organisation that wanted the vote extended to women, but on the same property-qualification basis as men. Though it initially sought common ground with the newly-formed Labour Party, it soon diverged over the latter's commitment to universal suffrage, in the process becoming increasingly autocratic under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel (there are interesting parallels with UKIP, and not just in the choice of the colour purple and the leader's fondness for a "bodyguard").

This anti-democratic stance led to repeated expulsions of its more left-leaning members, culminating in the 1914 split of the East London Federation, which had been formed as an explicitly socialist branch by Sylvia Pankhurst, now at loggerheads with her mother and sister. Though this was contemporaneous, there is no mention of it in the film. Instead, we are led to believe that the suffrage movement in the East End was a loyal redoubt of the WSPU. The strategic arguments over the extent of the franchise are sidelined in the film by tactical worries over the risks posed by bombing. Likewise, the impression is given that the suffrage movement had few friends in politics beyond the wives of Liberal MPs. Neither Keir Hardie nor George Lansbury (who fought a by-election on the issue in 1912) get a mention.

The WSPU would become increasingly conservative and patriotic after the outbreak of war. Many of its activists, who only months earlier had been breaking shop windows, took to handing out white feathers to working-class men who still didn't have the vote, demanding that they defend King and country (the film shows Maud's husband and young son saluting a photo of George V at bedtime). One bizarre dialogue between Maud and her hubby, played by Ben Whishaw, implied that he already had the vote. Given that the poorest 40% of all men were denied it until 1918 by the property qualification, and that the Watts family appeared to be living in a single room in an East London tenement, this was improbable to say the least.

The central female characters are shown as motivated by personal suffering rather than reason, much as Maud's introduction to the suffragettes is accidental rather than a matter of choice. She had been repeatedly sexually abused by Mr Taylor, the manager of the laundry, after she started work as a naive teenager; her new workmate Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) suffers a drunken, violent husband and too many pregnancies; while the middle-class pharmacist Edith (Helena Bonham Carter) was denied an education by her father, and thus the chance to become a doctor. This makes them victims whom we root for, which is dramatically compelling, but it also dilutes their personal agency. You'll note the implied ambition for working-class women was an end to abuse, while for middle-class women it was university.

These back-stories fail to illuminate the casual, structural prejudice that fuelled the resistance to democracy. Most people who objected to an extended franchise were neither cruel nor stupid: they were more likely to be merely self-interested or just unthinking, and often subject to the sort of sentimentality that the film employs (that Maud ends up losing her son to a forced adoption can be read both as a rebuke to society and to activism). Similarly, the politicians are shown to be shifty and hypocritical, rather than men of their class and era who simply couldn't envisage a world in which the vote would be considered a right rather than a privilege. This is a highly ideological film precisely because it fails to recognise the role of ideology.

The film's best scenes are interrogations. First, when Maud gives testimony before a Parliamentary committee: "Laundry work is a short life if you’re a woman". The second occasion, and arguably the heart of the film, is when she is confronted in prison by the cynical Inspector Steed, played by Brendan Gleeson, who talks of her being groomed and having her working-class anger exploited by a middle-class leadership. As well as drawing parallels with contemporary tropes of radicalisation, this calls to mind Steve McQueen's Hunger, both because Steed has been drafted in due to his experience in combating the Fenians and because of the suffragettes' hunger strike. It also indirectly echoes Dostoyevsky's parable, The Grand Inquisitor, and thus the original temptation of Christ. I was actually disappointed, if not surprised, when she turned down his offer to become an informant.

Abi Morgan co-wrote Shame with Steve McQueen, a film that also featured Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender (Bobby Sands in Hunger), suggesting that there was the opportunity for a more interesting story than a selective history of the WSPU's "capers". Mulligan is most effective when Maud's habitual docility gives way to anger, specifically because her anger is representative of both her class and gender. Paradoxically, Gleeson is the binding thread of the film as a man determined to break the suffragettes yet sufficiently intelligent to know he is merely delaying the inevitable. Outside of this pair, the characters are schematic at best (Duff and Whishaw are both wasted) or solipsistic at worst (Bonham Carter, Asquith's great-granddaughter, is her usual unsympathetic self, while Streep verges on a comedy turn - I'm hoping for a French and Saunders skit).

Though the film climaxes with the martyrdom of Emily Wilding Davis, knocked down by the king's horse in the Epsom Derby, it's narrative resolution sees Maud rescue Violet's daughter from Taylor's abusive clutches at the laundry by placing her as a servant with the wife of a Liberal MP, played by Romola Garai. A social movement is thereby reduced to individual charity and the classes are reconciled. This is in keeping with a film about politics that manages to be apolitical, and which treats exploitation as a moral failing in the manner of Dickens. I can't help feeling that there was a better film to be made around the confrontation of Maud and Steed. Perhaps someone will commission Morgan and McQueen to do a Stakeknife biopic.

The closing credits include a list of the dates when women got the vote in various countries, which includes the surprise of Switzerland (1971) and the no-surprise of Saudi Arabia (under consideration). The "some women" qualification for the UK's given date of 1918 coyly avoids mentioning the property threshold. Working class women would have to wait until 1928 before they were enfranchised. Emmeline Pankhurst, who died just before this latter milestone, but who considered her goal achieved in 1918, spent her later years warning of the dangers of Bolshevism, joining the Conservative Party in 1926.

No comments:

Post a Comment