If there is one film I shudder at the thought of being made to see, it is Suffragette.
The pictures of its fearless heroines (Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne-Marie Duff) gazing virtuously out from every newspaper are enough to put you off. Why the producer did not find cameo roles for the two Emmas (Thompson and Watson) and Helen Mirren, as well as Meryl Streep, to complete the feminist star line up I cannot think. They must be spitting at being upstaged in this gender equality signalling competition. Though Dame H, whose PR must never sleep, probably is still well ahead.
If the film’s reviews are anything to go by, whether by the naively admiring Brian Viner of the Daily Mail, Robbie Collins of The Daily Telegraph, or the sceptical David Sexton of the Evening Standard, I’d have to be dragged to the cinema kicking and screaming.
Its directors and stars lost any sight of the difference between fact and fiction long ago. They seem to think their make-believe film is true. Carey Mulligan, who plays the ‘star suffragette’ Maud, with her tragic and resigned face plastered across Elle, says she is now tired of her strong woman label.
Poor dear. It seems to have escaped her that Maud is only a role; and a rather contrived one at that.
Suffragette star Carey may be, but who is she representing? As David Sexton records, Abi Morgan, the female scriptwriter, and Sarah Gavron, the director, had a point to make. How they could explore the suffragette movement without having the autocratic Emmeline Pankhurst (who became a Conservative MP) and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia at the heart of it? Ah! What better than to consider the movement through the eyes of an ordinary, uncelebrated woman. Of course – a true victim (I mean heroine) of male oppression. Why not create “this composite, fictional character of Maud who participates in real events as her path crosses those of some of the key historical characters, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, Emily Davison and David Lloyd George.”
The fictional Maud, a courageous, humble laundry worker, is Carey Mulligan’s role. She is a woman who comes to the fore when her suffragette laundry worker colleague gets so badly beaten up (by her husband, the implication is) that she cannot deliver her testimony to Parliament. The young, poor but fearless Maud plunges into the fray, even though this leads to her being thrown out by her husband and their son being put up for adoption.
Men, whether they be husbands, policemen or politicians, do not come out so well. This is no accident. The whole thing has been comprehensively colour-designed, its creators revealed “so that the world governed by men seems lifeless, whereas the suffragettes get warmer treatment, using their signature tones”.
Production designer Alice Normington says: “We used a faded palette of purple and green in the female worlds of the film… Sarah and I got quite conceptual about it and said these are the colours of bruises and these are bruised women … In contrast, in the worlds dominated by men — the laundry, the prison and the police station — I tried to take the warmth out and to make them steely and grey.” They are, we are, Sexton concludes his review.
But what about the facts? Are there any rearing their little heads through the colour coding? Not many. “It’s a movie of stultifying, spell-it-all-out conventionality,” says Variety’s reviewer, “where character arcs and history lessons dovetail with the sort of tidiness that refutes the messy complexity of actual history, and where inspiring an audience means never having to provoke or challenge it”.
I suspect historian Martin Pugh would agree. He argues that the debate had largely been won by the turn of the century – not least in Parliament and with support of the Conservatives – and that little of any significance was added in the Edwardian era.
That the historical chronology of the suffrage movement no longer fits the movie’s myth-making was never going to deter our feminist film warriors, not given its timing as the feminist war front moves to the latest injustice of gender imbalance in moviemaking.
Helena Bonham Carter was up for doing her bit and Meryl Streep gave her “Good Prestige-Drama Seal of Approval in a drive-by cameo as the pioneering women’s activist Emmeline Pankhurst” as Variety described it. I imagine most young women will swallow this propaganda hook, line and sinker, seeing it as a factual historical episode in women’s cruel and continuing repression.
If to prove the ongoing battle, Sisters Uncut (the fierce domestic violence lobby) played their part. Upstaging the luvvies, they stormed the red carpet at the film’s London premiere. “Dead women can’t vote” and “cuts kill” they roared, while Carey and Helena were being interviewed for said reviews.
Apparently unaware of the self parody in the making, Helena trilled hopefully: “I’m glad our film has done something. … This is exactly what our characters would do”. Abi Morgan praised the protesters for their ‘spirit of Pankhurst’. But Carey missed the fun.
“I wish I’d seen it. For these women to do that tonight, I think that’s awesome. It’s so exciting.” That anyway should put paid to her strong woman image and restore her innocent girl look.