“I don’t record a dry history of events and facts. I’m writing a history of human feelings. What people thought, understood and remembered during the event. What they believed in or mistrusted, what illusions, hopes and fears they experienced … I’m searching life for observations and nuances, details. Because my interest in life is not the event as such, not war as such … What I am interested in is what happens to the human being…” (quoted in NYRB November 19, 2015, p. 10)
2015 Literature Novel Prize Svetlana Alexievich’s words could be used as an epigraph for Suffragette. The subject’s encounter with the Law and her/his resilience is given pride of place in this historical drama dealing with the suffragette movement in early 20th century Britain. Working wife and mother Maud has to deal with the law of the jungle prevailing in the microcosm of the laundry where she has been abused since her childhood; inspector Steed has to come to terms with the laws he has to enforce against his own sympathies. The movie artfully rehearses History and stories with a cameo appearance of Meryl Streep who is very convincing in her role as Mrs Pankhurst, the mentor and politician towering above her devoted followers. Depictions of a political class ruling through hypocrisy and empty promises intertwine with sketches of individual journeys to empowerment. The film also explores the theme of female bonding and solidarity in an unforgiving world. A turning point in the battle takes place with Emily’s personal sacrifice in an act of self immolation reminiscent of recent similar gestures, when all that is left to oppose the logic of power is your own body—whether it means standing nonplussed in front of approaching military tanks or setting yourself on fire in a desperate attempt to draw some attention to your existence. Mrs. Pankhurst ‘s call “Never give up the fight” is literalized by one person’s decision to go to her sure death in order to bring life to others—a martyr to the “cause” in an ultimate form of commitment and generosity.
The film avoids the pitfall of a simplistic Manichean view of men versus women to shed light on the human dimension of the historical events. The “bad” characters are all those who keep on imposing their power even if it means trampling on human rights and crushing human bodies and souls. Ostracized by his neighbors, Maud’s husband Sonny is also a victim of the power in place—economic and patriarchal. Maud and Sonny both have to give up their son Georgie in hope of a better future for him. Maud fights so that daughters of tomorrow can enjoy a better world and also, implicitly perhaps, so that fathers of tomorrow can keep their children. The agenda of the struggle involves acknowledging human dignity beyond gender and class boundaries. In a recent interview, IMF leader Christine Lagarde told journalists that the fight for gender equality indeed benefits everyone because it is tied to human empowerment.
The scrolling text at the end is a chilling reminder that a lot of us alive today were born without the right to vote—that a lot of us don’t have it yet and can only rely on a “promise”. The film’s individual portrayals—politically and economically disenfranchised females and males—resonate with current questions around power and agency. Beyond the exploration of the conflicts of a particular era, the movie thus functions as a timely reminder of the cost of sacrificing democracy and its political machinery to greed and lies. To the contemporary viewer and avid movie-goer, Maud might appear like a kindred spirit to Rey, another figure relegated to the margins who is propelled at the center of a life-affirming journey to fix the evils of the world and stand against its increasingly dehumanizing logic of apathy, cynicism and complacency. With Suffragette, a force, too, awakens.