Suffragette – The overdue narrative of a female war. (Film Review)
Of all the complex and contradictory feelings I had as I was watching Suffragette, the most interesting was the revelation that the story was long overdue. I’m not the only female critic who had this experience. I’ve read of two others who experienced being bludgeoned with the observation that the story was late, and the freshly made anew awareness of the absence of the female narrative in cultural history revealed to be archaic. For this alone, the film takes its place as important. Suffragette is not the story of an oppressed minority. It is the start of establishing an absent history of fifty percent of every society on earth. I will address the diversity issues in this review, but bear with me as I make the point, this is not a specialist film addressing a peculiar need for an oppressed group to be noticed. By centring its narrative around women, and not the men or male ideology they need to overcome, Suffragette highlights the missing history of females in cultural awareness. Suffragette exposes every war film as a man’s film, because the battle the women were fighting was elsewhere. Seen in this context, tally the number of war films in any and all of their genres and variety, and realise this is the first film about the battle women were fighting, and you start to see the serious nature of the revelation Suffragette inspires. This is a key point. While women and their struggle for emancipation is always relegated to the status of oppressed minority, Suffragette exposes the male narrative as wanting in its ability to address the human condition. Suffragette may not represent all women, but it establishes the female story as separate and missing from the males. And I’ve never seen a film do it with more clarity.
Immediately obvious is the absence of other films. The Indian-British females story, the bio-pics of women like Emmeline Pankhurst, Germaine Greer, Bell Hooks, Mary Wollstonecraft, the story of the racial disparity between brown women and white women and so on. Suffragette does more than tell a story. It reveals the absence of hundreds of stories and makes loud the whispers of millions of women mistakenly thought to be represented by the male-centric narrative. While I feel for the cry of the of women who feel sidelined and misrepresented by Suffragette, I applaud their taking to the internet to voice their frustration and the many and varied beautifully written articles about the absence of brown faces, the ongoing debate regarding racial disparity within feminism and the imperialism of Emmaline Pankhurst. Suffragette’s established demarcation point means those films can now be made, because the clear, lucid voice of reason has made a place for them, and highlighted the gap they must fill. Not that I’m a fan of clear lucid reason, mind, But it is the predominant language game of our age, and it is the yardstick by which all things are currently measured. Suffragette is big, it’s mainstream, and it’s unapologetic. In pop-cultural parlance, it has broken into new territory.
As for the film itself, for its genre, it barely places a foot wrong. Writer Abi Morgan’s perfect balance of the melodramatic personal story (as used in all films of this nature such as Gandhi, Schindler’s List or Lincoln) and political enumeration comes to vivid life under Sarah Gavron’s direction. Suffragette depicts the reality, long thought to be a myth, of female civic solidarity and the link women see between politics and autonomy. Cary Mulligan’s eyes as she watches her weeks wages leave her fingertips and travel into her husband’s pocket; the face of Anne-Marie Duff as she leaves the Suffragette movement because her husband has raped her into pregnancy and a seventh mouth she can’t feed, provide particularly poignant moments of immediacy and recognition regarding contemporary issues for women that have been elevated from the place of vocal minority. The timeline also, the shocking statistics regarding votes for women that bookend the film, give a “very now” cultural context to the absence of the women’s voice. Women are not an oppressed minority, claims Suffragette over and over again. They are an unrepresented majority. The violence of police officers beating female protestors is starkly unfetishised, just as the vocal taunts and painful jabs of friends and colleagues are startlingly contemporary. Of particular poignancy for women is a scene when Maud, alone and homeless, is instructed on endurance by Violet who encourages her to “practise” being strong with her.
Above all else, what gives structural weight to the importance of Suffragette, is the obvious foolishness of any anti-arguement. The film makes it appear insane to prevent women voting rights, and by proxy, the right to contribute in a democracy. It is this viewpoint that has been sorely lacking in the cultural examination of why we think it logical or rational that men speak for women at all, rather placing the domination of the masculine narrative at the heart of inequity. Suffragette may be flawed in its depiction of a certain history, but it’s far worse to exclude the history from discussion. It is not only inaccurate to say men can speak for the needs and tastes of women, it’s emotionally hysterical to think they can, and Suffragette shines a light on this hysteria. Suffragette reveals why it has been essential to patriarchy to bury the female narrative and it exposes the precarious nature of that which we once thought rational. If you doubt the destabilising ability of Suffragette, then consider that the police files on the historical record were not made public until 2002. It was only then, academics were allowed to question why school children were not taught about these things, and women were allowed to discover facts for themselves. There’s only one reason to bury a story of such political importance – and that is because of the rebellion it excites and the awareness it in cites. Suffragette is essential viewing for all film lovers, and for anyone who cares about the stories that create our society.