There is an odd dichotomy at the heart of Suffragette. On the one hand, the hand-held, “shaky cam” cinematography suggests an urgency typical of contemporary stories. On the other, the setting, costumes, characters, social structures, situation, and the characters’ response to it are all very particular to their time. The combination suggests that we are supposed to apply what we see in the lives of these characters to our lives today. The film’s marketing actively states this. But the ramifications of that suggestion are troubling.
For one, the band of suffragettes at the center of the film most closely resemble a terrorist cell. Their actions are acts of terrorism. They bomb civic structures and disrupt communication networks. They train in hand-to-hand combat. They go on suicide missions. The explicitly advocate violent demonstrations against Britain’s turn-of-the-20th-century government. Now, at the time these women were engaging in this kind of protest, nonviolent resistance hadn’t yet risen to global prominence—that happened with Mohandas Ghandi in the 1940s—so their actions have to be seen in the context of their time. But still, their actions are disturbing.
Suffragette doesn’t develop any of the characters beyond their base characteristics, save Carey Mulligan’s fictional “Maud Watts,” so the movie can’t question their methods. Suffragette can only celebrate them. Maud’s situation is explored in detail, but her internal motivations are barely sketched, yielding a character who seems easily swayed by more powerful personalities. She isn’t thoughtful; she’s simply emotional, and that criticism could be made of the entire film.
That last sentence smacks of the kind “women are illogical” rot that dominated the rhetoric against giving women the vote in turn-of-the-century Britain and elsewhere, doesn’t it? That’s unfortunate, because women are certianly as capable of reason as men. Suffragette is a difficult film to criticize, because I want to honor the lengths women went to gain the right to vote, but the film isn’t very good. Given what women had to go through and what they still go through to achieve even the smallest measure of equality, I think we owe it to them to take their reasons for doing what they did seriously. The suffragettes who campaign for equal rights in Britain in the early 20th century deserve to be depicted in all their complexity. Suffragette doesn’t do that.
Women certainly deserved the vote long before they were granted it, and it is very difficult to criticize the means they took to get it in Britain at the time. Still, if we’re going to learn from history, we have to learn from all of it. Heroes and villains both make mistakes. Good ends are sometimes reached by bad means, but that’s no reason to celebrate the means. Rather we should mourn that some had to resort to bad means to achieve the good ends that should have been theirs all along. The most moving part of Suffragette is the footage of actual British women and men marching through the streets for equality and the list of dates that leads off the closing credits reporting when women in different countries around the world achieved enfranchisement. That’s the kind of direct justice history’s women deserve. They deserve a better movie too.