It is often said that Britain’s revolution happened too early to make much of a difference. Rather than waiting for the emergence of liberalism (like France and America) or socialism (like Russia and China), Britain deposed an absolute monarch and handed the country to a bourgeois tyrant who opposed universal suffrage on the grounds that it posed a threat to private property. Though somewhat more democratic today than under Cromwell, British political progress has always been constrained by the understanding that radical politics are somehow profoundly un-British. Sure… people take to the streets from time to time but ask the wrong question or allow injustice to anger you for even a second and that very human emotional response will be used against you like a cudgel, or indeed a truncheon.
The British establishment has never been squeamish about using violence to subdue domestic radicals, but it does recognise that some groups are harder to put down than others. Race and religion are still used as a justification for violent repression (as they were in Ireland and in the aftermath of 9/11) but when the radicals start looking a little bit too white and middle-class, the tactics generally shift to smears and mockery. Central to this undertaking has been the re-invention of the British radical as stock comic character.
The vision of British radicals as comically inept hypocrites informed the 1970s sitcom Citizen Smith. Written by the same man who created Only Fools and Horses, Citizen Smith’s Walter ‘Wolfie’ Smith uses Marxist posturing to conceal the fact that he is little more than an oafish petty criminal content to sponge off of his girlfriend’s family.
A similar set of ideas is evident in Disney’s Mary Poppins, in which the Character of Mrs. Banks returns home from a Suffragette rally singing about being a soldier. The scene is played for laughs and the implication is that Mrs. Banks is not only an inattentive mother who can’t be bothered to raise her own children but also an upper middle-class hypocrite who plays the radical before returning home to an army of maids, cooks, and nannies paid for by a wealthy husband.
It bothers me that Mrs. Banks is one of the most enduring depictions of a Suffragette in popular culture.
It bothers me that the fight for women’s suffrage was ever deemed a subject worthy of mockery.
It bothers me that Britain’s radical tendencies have been systematically scorned and buried by self-serving cultural elites.
It bothers me that the history of Britain has been re-written but I am delighted that some films are beginning to challenge the idea that Britain lacks a radical spark. Poised somewhere between the transcendentalism of Steve McQueen’s Hunger and the humanism of Chris Morris’ Four Lions, Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette is an exploration of what it would take to turn a normal working-class mum into a revolutionary. Suffragette is a film marked by the stirring of Britain’s radical soul.
The film opens with Carey Mulligan’s laundress Maud Watts being sent to make a delivery in London’s West End. Caught up in a piece of political theatre that sees radical suffragettes smashing windows on Regent Street, she returns home rattled and more than a little afraid. Her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) is a gentle and softly-spoken man but he doesn’t offer to help when Maud is forced to re-wash the contents of her package. This mountain of washing is yet more work and Maud still has to cook dinner, clean up and put her son to bed before she can think about unwinding or going to sleep.
The Watts household seems to be little more than a single room and Gavron uses the cramped quarters to drive home the claustrophobia that governs Maud’s life. Everywhere she turns, there’s more work to do and the work will continue until the day she dies. This sense of claustrophobia is also tangible in the laundry where the couple work as Gavron is forever shooting through things and allowing extras to block the shot by wandering past the camera. The only time when the shot is clear is when we are focused upon Maud’s face or a part of her body as it is groped by the laundry manager.
Into this ugly little world comes Anne-Marie Duff’s Violet, an active Suffragette who has been radicalised by a combination of extreme poverty and a violently indifferent husband. Violet arrives at the laundry with a twelve year-old daughter who is immediately targeted by the lascivious overseer. This film heavily implies that such acts of child-abuse are absolutely standard practice and that Maud’s position in the laundry might very well be dependent upon her willingness to have sex with her manager. The film refers to this practice euphemistically as ‘working late’.
Out of friendship for Violet, Maud agrees to accompany her to the Houses of Parliament where she has volunteered to speak in the hope of convincing the government to extend the vote to women as part of their radical programme of on-going reforms. However, with Violet’s face a tapestry of bruises, Maud steps in at the last minute and seems to win over the reformist Chancellor David Lloyd George only for Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to chicken out and withdraw his support at the last minute.
Gavron stage-manages this act of political betrayal with real aplomb. For starters, Adrian Schiller looks more like the patrician Neville Chamberlain than the magnetic David Lloyd George and, once his speech given, the Chancellor is whisked from the scene allowing the police to step in and begin beating innocent protesters. When portraying violence Gavron displays a degree of technical finesse all too often absent from British period dramas: The camera whirls, the field-depth spasms and suddenly someone is on the floor as blows are raining down upon them. Impressionistic visuals made all the more powerful by the film’s truly excellent sound design. Suffragette is not just a film of sooty streets and bruised faces but also of worn heels clattering over cobbles and metal doors slamming shut.
Still refusing to identify as a Suffragette, Maude is hauled before Brendan Gleeson’s Inspector Steed. Steed is one of several figures hinting at political nuances forced from the film’s analysis by the need to remain grounded in a small cast of sympathetic characters. Steed is an Irishman who talks about having honed his investigative skills keeping tabs on “Fenians” and so represents the way that the British Empire would often use its colonies as testing grounds for new forms of social control. Once deployed ‘over there’, successful tactics would be brought ‘back here’ on the understanding that the resulting escalation and erosion of human rights was a response to the ‘extraordinary circumstances’ of the day.
As Britain’s empire collapsed, this ‘town and country’ mentality shrank alongside it but vestiges of these modes of thought can be found in the aftermath of 7/7 when drones began appearing above British cities and police forces replaced their existing policy of ‘shoot to stop’ with policies of ‘shoot to kill’ similar to those used in Northern Ireland throughout the Troubles.
Steed embodies the British tendency to repatriate oppression by introducing portable cameras to Scotland Yard. He is what the revolutionary writer Frantz Fanon famously called ‘men of culture’ in so far as he is a member of a subjugated group (the Irish) who seeks legitimacy by conniving with his oppressors and leading the subjugation of his own people. Brought in to help manage the Suffragette problem, Steed comes down hard on Maud and in so doing accidentally forces her down the path to radicalisation.
Maud’s radicalisation is the heart and soul of Suffragette and so Gavron devotes quite a lot of time to helping her audience understand how an ordinary working-class mum might become a revolutionary. Right from the start, Maud comes across as someone with very little to lose: She works very long hours for very low pay and when she comes home she is expected to cook, clean and support a husband who works a third less hours for a third more money. What makes her sympathetic to the arguments of the Suffragette movement is realising that the horrors of her life will be passed down from mother to daughter until someone has the courage to do something. When Maud sees her childhood revisited upon Violet’s daughter, she dares to dream that something might be different. This dream is nurtured by speeches and rhetoric but also by exemplars such as Helena Bonham Carter’s Edith Ellyn, a woman who trained as a military nurse but now works as a pharmacist and de facto doctor for the local poor.
While the words and deeds of the Suffragette movement may pull Maud towards direct action, the push comes in the form of shame. When Maud is first sent to prison, her husband complains about the hardship of having to look after his own child. Neither a brute nor a drunk, Sonny is a sensitive and softly-spoken man who cannot live with the shame of having a wife who is part of a demonised political group. Shame is a tangible presence throughout the film’s second act as Maud’s decision to step out of line puts pressure on the family’s social bonds and so explains why the British working-class is so reluctant to revolt. These bonds provide not only status but also access to the warren of mutual support networks that make working-class life possible in the first place. By stepping out of line, Maud shamed Sonny and this shame translates into both psychological hardships such as mockery and practical hardships such as no longer being able to rely upon neighbours for stuff like childcare, short-term loans, and food purchases. Unwilling to understand Maud’s decisions and incapable of supporting her, Sonny reacts to his feelings of shame by making life harder for Maud but this only deepens her commitment to the cause resulting in a death spiral that ends the marriage and results in Sonny denying Maud access to her own son.
Suffragette is also excellent in its portrayal of political differences within the movement and so manages to communicate the idea that political activism is a lot easier for wealthy and well-connected members of the middle-class than it is for working-class people whose engagement can easily translate into lost jobs, lost homes and lost lives. Again and again, the film returns to the fact that middle-class women go home at the end of the day and so wind-up speaking in more moderate voices than the working-class women who have already lost everything as a result of their activism. Rather than approaching this idea in a crass top-down fashion, Gavron and the film’s writer Abi Morgan allow each of the women to reach their own decisions based upon their own personalities. Suffragette pays particular attention to Maud as every last thing is stripped from her but we are also shown the journeys undertaken by other women as they come to their own decisions about whether or not to deepen their level of engagement.
The reason I compared Suffragette to McQueen’s Hunger is that both films feature harrowing scenes in which political radicals engage in hunger strikes in the hope of gaining the privileges associated with being a political prisoner. McQueen portrays the slow starvation of Bobby Sands as a spiritual progress in which the soul is martyred for the sake of a cause while Suffragette focuses upon the decision to force-feed the hunger strikers and treats the barbaric assault as yet another hardship forced upon women who dared to ask for something approaching equality. Though the film does build towards Emily Davison’s decision to throw herself under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby, Davison is very much a secondary character and while her suicide is handled respectfully, it is made abundantly clear that her path was always different to that of Maud.
It is in the handling of suicide and direct action that Suffragette shows its true colours: Rather than taking its cue from liberal historians arguing that British women got the vote as a result of their contribution to the war effort, Suffragette argues that women would never have received the vote had it not been for a campaign of direct action that culminated in Emily Davison’s politically-motivated suicide.
Aside from being a beautifully shot and acted period drama celebrating Britain’s radical past, Suffragette is also a useful counterpoint to films like Daniel and Matthew Wolfe’s Catch Me Daddy (2014) in which strong young women are beaten to a pulp in order to demonstrate the dead-eyed cruelty of existence. In fairness, Suffragette does draw upon those tropes in that it uses the emiseration of Maud to demonstrate both the injustices of the system and the reasons behind her gradual radicalisation. However, unlike many art house films that seem content not to push their analysis beyond a hand-wavy existentialism, Suffragette makes it clear that Maud is being ground into the dust by a system that was built and maintained by men of all social classes. Suffragette’s analysis of the system is precise, wide-ranging and never disrespectful of the fact that different women were always going to reach different conclusions when it came to making choices about how to survive under that type of political system.