At the Suffragette premiere in London, the movie's stars, Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, and Romola Garai, gamely walked the press line, trying to talk to press about equality and inspiration over the chanting of protesters holding signs outside the security barricades. Activists had rushed the red carpet to call attention to cuts to domestic violence services. "This film is talking about women’s liberation in a very celebratory sense and there’s this argument that we’re in a postfeminist era," one of them told the Guardian. "So that means that our messages more than ever need to heard, because there is this delusional element to it all."
It was, in a way, the perfect party for a movie like Suffragette, which is about protests that are disruptive and sometimes violent, and which has had a tone-deaf promotional journey that's often felt like one big call for lessons in intersectional feminism. Suffragette has already been called out for its whiteness (something director Sarah Gavron argues is historically accurate to the slice of the movement depicted) and for touting 1920 as the date women got the right to vote in the U.S., when for women of color the fight continued for years and decades past that.
Then Meryl Streep, who has a small but pivotal role as Emmeline Pankhurst, described herself not as a feminist but as "a humanist," telling Time Out, "I am for nice easy balance," which was a disappointing answer from a major actor in general but an especially facepalmy one from a major actor in a movie about feminist pioneers. That same interview included photos of the main cast in T-shirts reading "I'd rather be a rebel than a slave," a Pankhurst quote from 1913 that's featured in the movie, but that as a present-day slogan, particularly to American ears, suggests that actual slavery was something millions of people could have just opted out of if they really wanted.
For plenty of women today, including that protester at the premiere, the run-up to Suffragette has understandably reeked of slogany, feel-good, exclusionary triumphalism, female empowerment being used as a marketing ploy and as Oscar bait. What's ironic is that the movie itself, for all its flaws, is anything but easygoing in its depiction of a year in the life of the U.K.'s British suffrage movement as seen through the eyes of a fictional character, Maud Watts (Mulligan), who ends up embedded with some real historical figures. Maud does a lot more than march, and she pays a very high price for her convictions.
She is a working-class woman who becomes a suffragette during an era of militancy. These days, when "militant feminist" is most often heard as an MRA insult intended to belittle a woman's anger, Suffragette does serve as an eye-opening reminder of what the term actually means. The group into which Maud falls, a cell operating under orders passed down from Pankhurst, throws rocks through store windows, blows up mailboxes, and cuts telegraph wires. They have tried to bring about peaceful change, and they have found it does not work.
Maud and her colleagues plant a bomb in chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George's (Adrian Schiller) unoccupied vacation house. They get surveilled and beaten by police, and when they're arrested, they go on hunger strikes. They are, as fellow fighter Edith Ellyn (Carter) puts it, soldiers, and they're engaged in a war. And there's no way to not be enraged on their behalf as they face abuse and assault, as well as paternalistic allies who want to help only so far as their own lives are not disturbed. The weight of the entrenched injustices these characters stagger under is enough to keep you on the verge of tears throughout.
And yet despite that, there's still so much about Suffragette that's drudging and dutiful, most of it stemming from the choice to focus on a fictional character who never feels like more than a symbol, Mulligan's vintage sweetheart face locked in a near-permanent grimace of determined anguish. Maud is meant to be a stand-in for all the unnamed suffragettes who fought alongside famous figures like Pankhurst and Ellyn and Emily Davison (Natalie Press). And that's what she feels like — a shorthand for an idea that Suffragette offers up but doesn't really engage, which is that the working-class women who joined the movement had more to lose and fewer protections and were sometimes cannon fodder. As one of the men points out, the movement is waiting on a martyr.
Sure, we see that the wealthy Alice Haughton (Garai) has money to pay her own bail while her compatriots have to stay in jail, and that Pankhurst is swarmed and shielded from the police by the bodies of other suffragettes. But Maud ends up shorn of the laundry job she was forced to earn with sexual favors, then her family (Ben Whishaw plays her shitheel of a husband and father of her child), losses of a magnitude Suffragette can't contend with. The movie isn't just about one woman's awakening to the cause, it's about how she essentially immolates her life and her identity to become a member of its infantry, which isn't a less worthy story, but it is a much more difficult one to tell. Suffragette wants to celebrate women like Maud but ends up making her into an abstract — so much suffering, and all she got was a lousy T-shirt.