THE ONLY LANGUAGE THAT MAN LISTENS TO
On the 20th of December the citizens of Spain went to the polling place to choose the new Spanish president. We –men and women- queued, showed our ID and voted; there was nothing strange in that. We weren’t thinking that not too many years ago women weren’t allowed to do so, and that back in the twentieth century some women had to fight to get that right. They were called The Suffragettes and their struggle is revived on Sarah Gavron’s new film Suffragette.
It needs to be remarked that even though the title is in singular and the movie focuses on the life of Maud Watts, it is also a testimony of the bravery of the women from the working class who risked everything fighting for their right to vote. They saw how peaceful protests changed nothing with disappointment, and consequently radicalised by turning to violence smashing windows and blowing up mailboxes. As “War’s the only language that man listens to”, vandalism was the only way to make their cause be noticed.
Maud Watts is a young lower-class Londoner who works in an industrial laundry. Her daily routine is shaken up when she is caught in the middle of a Suffragette riot. It is very interesting to see how Maud’s character evolves throughout the film. At the beginning she is not a Suffragette at all and she criticises the vandalism. Later on, when she is faced with the brutality of the police and the lies of the government, she loses her temper and –a bit involuntarily- gets involved. It is the first time that her hair literally gets messy, yet she claims she isn’t a suffragette, but afterwards her innocence and passivity vanish, she sees her maturity and then affirms she is a Suffragette. Maud is no longer just what the patriarchal and sexist society has made her, a mother and a wife, but someone who stands up for her rights. The Suffragette’s leader, Emmeline Pankhurst’s speech in a clandestine meeting had been of great influence to her. Pankhurst had said: “I would rather be a rebel than a slave”, and Maud is sick of being a slave: women didn’t have a voice in the Parliament, but neither in their work nor their home. She is determined to change that.
This screenplay was written by Abi Morgan, with whom Sarah Gavron had already worked before in 2007, when she wrote the script of Brick Lane, which is also set in London and focuses on a lower class family with a dramatic life who faces a melodramatic separation. Nevertheless, in Brick Lane there is also the exoticism of India and some rural scenery, whereas in Suffragette we can only see the industrialized London.
The setting of the film is based in London 1912 time, and it has been perfectly pictured with its streets with antique cars and buses, a carriage driven by a horse, many puddles on the ground, some newspapers on what it looks like a kiosk, the façade of an old chemist, etc. There is a clear contrast between East London, where the working class lives and Central London, where people look wealthier and are dressed fancy. But, what is more impressive is the Glasshouse Laundry where Maud works: the steam that fills the atmosphere and the sweat in the clothes of the workers create a realistic ambience which makes you able to imagine very clearly how hard it was to work in such bad conditions.
But it wasn’t movies Gavron started filming. At first she started with documentaries, which seemed easier but what she really loved was narrative filmmaking. In Suffragette two of the characters are based on historical Suffragettes. Emmeline Pankhurst –performed by Meryl Streep- played an important part in helping to found the Women’s Social and Political Union, organisation that gathered the Suffragettes, and Emily Davison –performed by Natalie Press- was a WSPU militant. Yet, Maud Watts is a completely fictional character, and we musn’t forget that Suffragette is a film and not a documentary, even if the historical background is realistic. As Abi Morgan highlights, they did a lot of historical research, like reading original testimonies and public records about police surveillance operations. It took six years to get the film made.
It is easy to find historical documentaries about women fighting for their rights, and specifically to have the right to vote, such as One woman, One vote. However, most of the documentaries are made in the United States, and consequently only refer to the movement in that country. In 2004 Katja von Garnier directed Iron Jawed Angels, a TV movie about north-American suffragists, but there aren’t many more examples. Suffragette brings this historical reality closer to a wider public who may not be interested in documentaries, but love a blockbuster.
This film was clearly designed to be a blockbuster, and it is through the cast that the commercial aiming of the film is obvious. Not only a well-known actress like Carey Mulligan got the lead role –being named ‘Actress of the Year by the Hollywood Film Award- and Helena Bonham Carter a secondary yet essential one. But Meryl Streep also has her moment of glory and she even appears in all of the official posters. Still, Streep isn’t too important and her presence in the film only lasts few minutes. On the contrast, Anne-Maria Duff has an important role in the film but is absent on the poster, maybe because she isn’t as famous as the others. To me it seems that the choice of the actresses that appear in the promotional images was made to attract a larger public.
All of us know how the story ends; therefore I can say it without needing a spoiler alert: women got the right to vote. However, this victory is rather bittersweet as now, a century later, there is still a long way to go to reach equality between men and women. Furthermore, the film also makes you think about legality; in the twentieth century the law prohibited women to vote. That law needed to be broken, as sometimes disobedience may be necessary. Violet Miller, Maud’s colleague says to her: “You want me to respect the law? Then make the law respectable!”.