Review: Suffragette

By : November 15, 2015

Suffragette is a well made film, but might ultimately be the victim of the classic trap of hagiography: two-dimensional characters.

The film’s strength— its successful depiction of an era and two of its most important political issues — is to some extent weakened by a somewhat flat characterization.

The fiend who manages the women at the laundry is almost comically evil, and reminded me of some Perils of Pauline villain, twirling his evil mustache. Unfortunately, such an over-the-top sexual predator allows the audience to associate 1912 employee sexual coercion with utterly debased monsters, and how many of them could there be?

Suffragette would have revealed the vulnerability of poor women better if the manager seemed rather ordinary, except for politely forcing his attentions on women who could not afford to be fired. That would suggest that sexual coercion was probably fairly commonplace, not an aberration.

I admit that a film revealing a heroic struggle against oppression is no place to have completely balanced characters. Audiences applaud one set of beliefs and admire its adherents, and we abhor the other. Films are not debates. In wars, wearing a uniform or flying a flag is adequate reason for thousands of others to want to kill you without regard to whether you, personally, are really a nice guy.

But even dedicated, visionary revolutionaries have personality flaws and quirks (some people might say that three possible flaws are identified in this very sentence). Heroes are still people.

And even some pompous defenders of exploitation along class and gender lines probably have some redeeming qualities, possibly including doubts and awareness of their own hypocrisies. Surely even the densest British government officials in 1912 could not read their Times at breakfast without a touch of dyspepsia at having their empire’s hypocrisies constantly pointed out to them between the lines in news stories.

Our protagonist Maude Watts has no serious character flaw, but (fortunately for audience interest) her being reluctantly, adventitiously, swept up in the Suffragist movement allows for continued inner conflict. Most of Maude Watts’ conflict arises only out of  her personal situation (wanting to keep her son and avoid prison), rather than from reflection on the ethics of tactics, the eternal problems of ends and means.

All revolutionary movements experience internal fights over tactics and principles, and I wish that the screenwriter had allowed the women in Suffragette to argue better. Instead, they simply follow Emmeline Pankhurst’s exhortations with the unthinking obedience of a Tommy Atkins in Lord Kitchener’s army — although they treat her like a god, not a general.

The more one learns about the endless, labyrinthine ideological debates among Russian revolutionaries in the early twentieth century, the more one marvels that they found any time at all to clean rifles or cook dinner.

Conservatives and religionists defend the status quo, but revolutionaries have a dizzying array of options. The Tea Party and the Occupy movement doubtless have wonderfully intense internal debates, and any films about them should show that.

Gender and class

In Suffragette, the primary doctrinal conflicts are not discussed with any realpolitik or ideological detail, but are tidily encapsulated in Emmeline Pankhurst’s insistence on “Deeds, not words.” In the film, no one debates the range of acceptable “deeds,” a vague term that encompasses both quiet prayer and explosive assassination. The slogan itself suffices.

Maude Watts is asked, “If you got the vote, what would you do with it?” Maude does not know. But in the film, the vote stands as a proxy for women’s equal participation in government and thus their greater power to end their abusive second-class citizenship at the workplace and in the home.

In Suffragette, class and gender oppression are manifested in the burly police surveillance specialist, a calm brute experienced in hunting bomb-throwing anarchists, revolutionary Irish gunmen, and ordinary women who just want to vote, please. He develops a slight revulsion at the brutality of prison forced feedings, but we are given no motivation for this hinted inner conflict: no beloved daughter, no memories of mother, no remorse about collateral damage from any prior police work blunder.

With very few edits for sex and violence, this film could be an afternoon special. It promotes values nearly everyone now espouses, has a likable and reluctantly courageous protagonist, and provides a vivid visual sense of life in a particular historic era.

Parallels today

For an audience alert to historical parallels, Suffragette offers a bracing implicit evocation of some contemporary issues we should all think about more —  such as the poverty inherent in income inequality, sexual exploitation, forced feeding at Guantanamo and in domestic prisons, wage slavery, and secret police surveillance of non-violent political groups. Every serious art work set in the past inescapably says something about its own time.

Seeing Suffragette two days after the November 2015 Paris terror attacks, the audience I was in might have felt to some extent aligned with the film’s ordinary 1912 Londoners, women and men, who were most interested in just not getting accidentally caught up in postal box bombs or mounted police beatings. But Suffragette encourages our emotional identification with ordinary people who speak or act against repression, exploitation, or injustice. Ordinary people, until they see or experience enough abuse to take extraordinary measures.

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