It’s funny (or perhaps not) when you think about it. I’ve always taken my right to vote (and, in theory at least, have some say over how I’m governed) for granted. Even before I turned 18 and officially registered, I never had any doubt that, some day, I would be able to vote for President and every other elected office. (And, even before that, I voted in student council and mock presidential elections.) Voting is something that I so take for granted that, even when I cast my first official vote in the 2004 Presidential election, it didn’t really mean much to me. Given the choice between Bush and Kerry, I wrote in the name of Charles Jay, the candidate of the Personal Choice Party. I knew nothing about Mr. Jay but I had come across his name online and I liked the idea of personal choice and I thought it would make for a funny story to tell all of my friends who were actually taking the election seriously. (Even back then, I enjoyed annoying people who actually cared.) Essentially, I threw my vote away and I did it without a second thought.
Of course, what I didn’t understand at that time was that the right to vote was something that many brave women had fought for, gone to prison for, and even died for. If I had lived before 1920, I would not have had the right to vote and I certainly would not have had the opportunity to so casually toss my vote away. Women in the U.S. did not win the right to vote until 1920. But before everyone starts in with the usual “America is so backwards!” crap, consider this. In Britain, women did not win the right to vote until 1928. Women could not vote in France until 1944 and Switzerland waited until 1984! Last year, women in Saudi Arabia voted for the first time.
The struggle of British women to gain equal rights under the law is the subject of the film Suffragette. Maud Watts (played by Carey Mulligan, my generation’s Audrey Hepburn) is a laundress living in London in 1912. She spends her day working for little money and for a male boss who, for years, has sexually harassed and abused the women working under him. Unlike a lot of the women who work at the laundry, Maud has a stable home life. She is a devoted mother and her husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), is supportive.
Or, at least, he seems to be at first. Things chance once Maud gets involved in the suffragette movement. It’s not just that her lecherous boss laughs at her for wanting to be treated equally, That, we expect. No, what is truly infuriating is to watch how quickly Sonny goes from being a loving husband to a monster, the type who forbids Maud from seeing her own son and then callously puts the boy up for adoption. Confronted by his wife’s demand to be treated as his equal, Sonny reveals himself to be no better than the casual misogynists that Maud must deal with, on a daily basis, at work. Raised on a diet of films where men come to their senses and justice (and love) somehow prevails, I kept expecting Sonny to see the error of his ways or for Maud to at least be reunited with her son. Needless to say, none of that happened. This is a film that never lets us forget the sacrifice involved in fighting for equal rights.
Instead, having lost everything that previously defined her life, Maud throws herself into the battle for women’s rights. And, as Suffragette makes clear, that meant a lot more than just winning the right to vote.
It’s an inspiring story and both Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham-Carter (who plays another suffragette) give powerful performances. At the same time — and this is something that many critics need to understand and acknowledge — you can love a film for what it has to say while, at the same time, acknowledging that it doesn’t totally work as a piece of cinema. Suffragette is not a perfect film and reviewing it, I found myself torn between praising the film’s message and criticizing director Sarah Gavron’s frequently uninspired cinematic technique. (From a strictly cinematic point of view, Suffragette will play better on television than on a big movie screen.)
Perhaps for me, the film’s great weakness was casting Meryl Streep in the role of real-life activist Emmeline Pankhurst. Ms. Pankhurst was the leader of the Suffragette movement and is an inspiring historical figure. Unfortunately, as soon as Meryl shows up for her four-minute cameo, it becomes impossible to see her as being anyone other than Meryl Streep, a wealthy white woman who — unlike the real-life Ms. Pankhurst — will never be sent to prison for demanding the right to vote. When Meryl shows up as Ms. Pankhurst, it takes the viewer out of the historical reality of the film. You’re no longer watching a group of brave women risking their lives and demanding to be treated equally under the law. Instead, you’re just watching a Meryl Streep cameo.
Throughout the film, Maud stays in a succession of safe houses and decrepit offices. She always has a picture of Ms. Pankhurst near her and occasionally, she looks to it for strength and guidance. However, since the picture of Ms. Pankhurst is really just a picture of Meryl Streep, it again serves to take the viewer out of the film. Perhaps if Meryl Streep had more screen time, she would be able to get us to think of her as being Ms. Pankhurst but since she’s only onscreen for four minutes, she instead just serves to distract from the film’s message.
(Personally, I would have cast either Emma Thompson and Kristin Scott Thomas in the role of Ms. Pankhurst, two great actresses who would could have portrayed her charisma without being quite as distracting as Meryl Streep.)
As I said earlier, Suffragette is not a perfect film but it does teach an important lesson that needs to be learned, especially by those of us who occasionally take our rights for granted. It’s a film that reminds us that years ago, brave women fought for everything that we have now and it’s a film that encourages us to keep fighting. It’s not a perfect film but it’s a film that deserves to be seen.
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