Whilst doing my guided walks in London I saw Suffragette being filmed on location in February 2014 (e.g. Arnold Circus Shoreditch was where Carey Mulligan’s character Maud Watts lived). I made inquiries and learned that the film was due out in January 2015. This was later changed to September 11 2015. The fact that the film was not coming out until some time after its original release date and was now to hit our cinemas on a date synonymous with infamy concerned me. Did they have a turkey on their hands and were hoping to use the release date to help promote the film along the Were Suffragettes Terrorists route? But when the date was changed again to the London Film Festival in October, I wondered whether my fears were unwarranted.
I’m relieved and very pleased to say that they were. Suffragette is a fine film with excellent costume, set and production design (I particularly loved the wide long shot of a 1912 West End at the start), and with one exception very good acting too. Carey Mulligan, in the lead role of Maud Watts, is in particularly good form. The film starts with what I take to be the March 1912 mass Suffragette attack on West End shops, smashing their windows, and is then set in the following 15 months, culminating at the “Suffragette Derby” of June 1913. I won’t go into spoilers about the story but it follows the life of new recruit Maud, covering both her Suffragette activities and the price she has to pay for them in her home life, and has a moving ending (my wife and I were both in tears). The film packs a lot of thought-provoking drama and action in to its 1 hour 45 minutes. The script has some heavy handed exposition at times and it’s no Best Film Oscar- winning exploration into martyrdom, fundamentalism and the ethics of direct action, but it isn’t trying to be. Given that the Suffragettes have been ignored by TV, film and school curricula for the past 40 plus years since the Shoulder to Shoulder TV series, I think this is a very welcome accessible introduction for an audience into the little known world of Suffragettes.
And there are some nice little touches which show the film makers did their research. I particularly liked the pea-shooter woman, an olden days version of an alarm clock, shooting up at her client’s windows at some ungodly hour to wake them up for their early shift.
There are historical inaccuracies, but most are minor excursions into poetic license and certainly nothing to be concerned about, and you can see why the film makers made them. For example, force-feeding of Suffragettes took place for several years but actually stopped in 1913, but any film about Suffragettes surely has almost a duty to show it, so we have Maud being force-fed, when such a practice had actually just ended. (By the way this scene is not as graphic as it could have been, and I think the film is better for it. If they had made it too appalling, it would have been historically accurate but unwatchable and perhaps lost the film its 12 Certificate).
I only have two problems with the film. One is that it has a working class heroine. Emmilene Pankhurst’s WSPU were a middle class organisation who were only trying to win the vote for propertied (i.e. middle class) women. Had either the 1910, 1911 or 1912 Conciliation Bills, which the Suffragettes supported, been successfully passed into law, Maud still wouldn’t have had the vote. That’s not to say Maud wouldn’t have joined a Votes for Women organisation, but she would most likely have joined Sylvia Pankhurst’s East London Federation of Suffragettes or one of the other many Suffragist societies. And perhaps this anomaly was why a bad error in the script, which really should have been picked up on by whoever the film makers used as their technical/history adviser, was left in. This was when Sonny, Maud’s husband, asks what she would do with the vote and she replies “the same as you do.” But working class men didn’t have the vote either. Sonny wouldn’t have had the vote.
The second problem is that the film doesn’t feature any politics. I can understand that they didn’t want dry old politics slowing the narrative but I think a political scene or two would have been worthwhile to show how the Prime Minister Asquith, with the backing of a small number of cabinet colleagues, was undemocratically blocking Votes for Women when most government MP’s thought women should get the vote. This would have helped explain the women’s direct action, and there would have been a neat parallel between Asquith & Suffragettes with Blair & Iraq.
But don’t get the wrong idea. I loved this film. Go see it!
P.S. I mentioned above that the acting was, with one exception very good. That exception was the hopelessly miscast Ben Wilshaw as working class factory worker Sonny, Maud’s husband.
By the way other locations to look out for are Chatham Dockyard, St Barts the Great Church, the Turks Cafe and the old graveyard opposite in Old Wapping, and I think the Georgian houses featured near the end might have been in The Temple but I’m not completely sure on that one.