Saturday, September 5, 2015

Suffragette Film Review: The Iron Ladies, Female Action Heroes Extraordinaire

While the mass movement for women's voting rights in the United States that reached its most heated moment back in the early 20th century is remembered mostly as a tame affair, apparently the more militant struggle back then in England is barely remembered at all. That is, until now when that one hundred year buried history has been boldly and brilliantly exhumed and brought back to life in the defiant and devastating historical drama, Suffragette.

And in stark contrast to the US where the organized movement was mostly a middle class affair, those fiery female rebels in England were thrust progressively through a combination of oppression and frustration into an explosive battle of the sexes. And fueled in no small part by outright class warfare. Provoked apparently by the rigid British class system, and by England divisively first granting voting rights solely to women of property. Which led to targeting in large part "the sacred ideology of property if we must."

Originally titled The Fury, Suffragette is crafted as a tense period thriller and stunningly seamless collage of historical truth and raw emotional energy. And marks the second collaboration following their solemn drama about that female sacrificial sexual enslaving ritual know as arranged marriage, Brick Lane (2007) - of director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, The Invisible Woman, Shame).

And with a beyond boldly eloquent dramatic performance by Carey Mulligan, so rare in movies, and barely in need of words. As a thwarted workingclass woman too initially imprisoned in her own personal struggle surviving as a woman and laundry plant worker among those brutally laboring with 'crushed fingers and ulcerated legs.' While barely making ends meet to comprehend or make sense of her daily persecution. But when lifted through a convergence of persecution as a woman and wife with consciousness igniting inspiration,  astonishingly rising to the occasion swept into the tremendously passionate heat of that historical moment.

In a more subdued, ideologically meditative performance is Helena Bonham Carter as a pharmacist by day and moonlighting anarchist, one of a number of characters created out of a collection of real lives at the time. While Meryl Streep in a hide and seek cameo as similarly real life middle class movement leader firebrand Emmeline Pankhurst, spends too much of the film in hiding to get a solid sense of her contribution to this struggle.

Equally commendable about Suffragette, is its scope and attention to the larger picture, a fusion of contributing factors and injustices that comprised a far greater amalgam of decisive ingredients precipitating that mass female rebellion. Including child labor and the sexual exploitation of worker women and girls in those factories. And the legal status of women as little more than mere human bondage, the property along with their children, of their spouses who had absolute entitlement to offspring in cases of separation and divorce.

There is also within the narrative of Suffragette, the disturbing roots of officially sanctioned practices today revealed in Guantanamo atrocities, and the dubious machinations of COINTELPRO and the NSA. And counting the torture tactic of force feedings, political imprisonments, and forcing activist inmates into police espionage in exchange for their release following trumped up charges.

Suffragette was screened at a special premiere on Women’s Equality Day in New York City, August 26th. A date 'selected to commemorate the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote. This was the culmination of a massive, peaceful civil rights movement by women that had its formal beginnings in 1848 at the world’s first women’s rights convention, in Seneca Falls, New York.'

Suffragette director Sarah Gavron and writer Abi Morgan were present following the film, and responded to questions about the inspiration to bring this story to the screen, a project struggling for fruition for ten years. And marking only the third UK film in 53 years made by women.

"We hope this untold story for one hundred years sparks audiences today, for women all over the world challenging oppression," said Gavron. Creating this movie "made me believe in the sisterhood again, and how powerful we are" added Morgan. "And it's made me a feminist writer now."

The filmmakers also described how the utterly powerful climactic scene featuring actual period footage of the huge outpouring of female anger and empowerment, came into their possession quite by accident. And as "an underdeveloped role of film that we had no idea what was on it." Also poignantly imbuing this story was the potent significance of seemingly smaller details. Such as one Sufraggette martyr's purse discovered by her side after death, and containing "a single coin and a return ticket home." And the stones the women threw in protest, "wrapped in psalms and bearing messages and poetry."   

As a solemn footnote to Suffragette, the screen credits are followed by a troubling list of the dates when various countries finally granted women's voting rights - a number of them not until the 21st century. And most disturbing of all, the US staunch Mideast ally Saudi Arabia listed last, as still not allowing women there to vote, but they have been 'promised.'

Prairie Miller

Arts Express, Airing On The WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network and Affiliate Stations


  1. You need to get an education on the American women's suffrage movement. For starters, watch the movie, Iron Jawed Angels and learn a few things about the Night of Terror that the American suffragists went through in prison. It's a miracle that they didn't get killed. Indeed, Alice Paul could have ended up in a mental institution.

    Also, it's male chauvinistic to say that women's voting rights were granted. The suffragists knew that women have an inherent right to vote, a right endowed by their Creator. They knew that it was not something to be "given" or "granted". It was something that women must claim and society must affirm.

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