It Is Very Real History: A Review of Suffragette

This review of the 2015 movie Suffragette first appeared in The Weekend Express's in-paper magazine The Connoisseur

It has also appeared on Pakistan's Courting the Law where I function as the Sri Lankan correspondent 

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 ‘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 sing, they laid down their lives in the fight for women to be granted the 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, FPA Sri Lanka hosted a film and literary festival entitled ‘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, 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 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 a part of the key struggle of the movement, the vote for women. Professor Goonesekara reminded us of the 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 a 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 was that through the suffragette agenda the British Parliament was forced to recognized the rights of women to their property, 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 and 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 are still viewed and treated in this manner today. From tokenistic testimonial hearings and consultations led by the State that yield little to no results, to the sheer brutality, harassment, and intimidation the police and authorities subject them to in an attempt to silence their voices. Sound familiar? It should.

Any questions one could have about the methods the suffragettes employed which included arson and damage of public property were beautifully mitigated with the inclusion of 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 the 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 film and I for one welcomed it as a chance to gather myself. What I did take issue with was the occasional ‘Hollywood’ overtones that seem hard to avoid but resulted in a compromising of the film’s authenticity. This was especially notable in Carey Mulligan’s character – Maude Watts whose journey from a battered laundress, being rejected by her husband and losing her child through his decisions that he is legally able to make without her consent resulting in her transformation to a radical ‘solider’ in the movement. It’s a struggle to believe that in the period of less than four actual meetings she is jailed, meets Emmeline Pankhurst who tells her personally ‘Never surrender, never give up the fight!’ and before she has even attended one meeting has been flagged as a person of interest by the police surveillance. This has me rolling my eyes at the typical drama of it all, and also distracted from the more authentic journeys of other suffragette’s 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 having been arrested for aiding his wife’s activities as a suffragette. This moment could gently raise the dilemma that often the loved ones of activists and those fighting against the grain 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 is 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 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. 


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