Goodness, where to begin to with this one. Well, let’s start with the popular advertising poster:
As we can see from this, Meryl Streep is very much posited as one of the key actors in the film. She isn’t. She plays Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the suffragette movement who campaigned and brutally fought for women to have the vote, the suffrage, in Britain from the latter half of the nineteenth century until some women were eventually granted it in 1918 (and some more men, they didn’t have universal suffrage back then either) and then all women over 21 in 1928. As Em. Pankhurst, one could be forgiven for thinking she would indeed feature heavily in the movie, as it is though she has one scene giving a speech from a balcony which has very obviously and very poorly been dubbed in a sound studio, and then she scarpers, stopping briefly to tell protagonist Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) to keep up the good fight. It’s a cameo role, pure and simple, and thusly amounts to false advertising to sell a product which outside of the UK would appear to be a rather dismal, po faced and low-key film, which, actually, it is.
Secondly, again looking at the poster, ‘The Time is Now’, well, ‘The Time was Then’, surely? Coupled with the realisation the central character and the majority of events are purely fictional, we suddenly realise this is a film with a very skewed agenda at its heart, as we are shown that every man in Maud’s life is a total shitbag and she’s been sexually abused by her boss in the past at work, and there was of course seemingly nothing she could do about it, or perhaps she was willing then and now she’s angry at his attentions turning to someone younger – we are left to wonder, as she goes on to, quite by chance, end up meeting the Prime Minister and joining the suffragette movement with very little understanding of anything about it, rather she comes to realise that all men are pigs, and by extension the movie is really trying to imply the same is as true now as it was then.
We see, for example, the same lewd and abusive boss talk down to her, and in response she crushes his hand with a red-hot iron in front of everyone – a pretty serious assault despite the guy being a creep, but the police make a deal with her to let it go if she helps rat out the movement, which she initially agrees to then immediately reneges on, but the incident is mysteriously simply forgotten about. I remember studying the suffragette movement many years ago and although the details have long since faded nothing in this film bar the most famous of incidents shown, such as Emily Davison (Natalie Press) throwing herself to her death in front of the King’s horse, ring true. The acting from Mulligan is fine with less than inspiring support work around her, but even without the lack of any real audience connection with the material the film is flat and unrealistic throughout, notwithstanding the occasional moment of sympathy for families being torn apart, and this comes as no surprise given it’s directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan, whose last film together, ‘Brick Lane‘, was largely shunned and protested against by the very people it was supposed to be representing.
Historically, it’s one of a number of periods in the twentieth century that form a continuous narrative of groups struggling for their democratic and human rights and their varied approach to that struggle, and indeed it was high time a film was made about the suffragettes, but this is just unforgivable. The audience are led to believe that it was the suffragettes themselves that essentially gained the vote for women, which is an enormous simplification of the issue – politically it’s unthinkable that women weren’t going to get the vote in the UK as it had already been enacted in other democratic countries, it was just a question of how and when, and ultimately after the united effort of British women on the home front during World War I, taking over all the jobs vacated by the men off fighting, the first stages of legislation were passed to grant some women the suffrage, almost as a way to say thank you as much as a recognition that it was increasingly unjustifiable and, frankly, stupid not too.
However, that too is misleading given the suffragettes had been running around blowing things up, acts of terrorism which don’t traditionally make it easy for a government to acquiesce to your demands, there was no doubt an element of ‘perfect, we can use this and move on from it’ as well as opportunistic politicians hoping to gain from the extension of the public franchise, and it’s certainly arguable that the movement actually hindered their cause, successfully raising public awareness of the issue but also painting it in a strongly negative light.
Which leads nicely on to what I perceive to be the agenda of the film itself, which has nothing to do with the past but rather the fact that actresses in the film industry in America, and I think perhaps in the UK too although there are less public details about that, are currently up in arms about the lack of pay parity between the sexes, which has apparently been going on since the very beginning of the industry and yet they’ve never thought to do anything about it. This does seem to be a real problem, with no shortage of evidence being released this year alone to support it, however it really is their problem – do they really expect the public to care that they only get X million instead of Y million? Aware of this lack of public support, you occasionally see the debate being appropriated by people who should know better and who try to package the thing as ‘actually all women in the West are being victimised and held back by mysterious faceless white men in their forties who control everything including your brains’ and thus their struggle is actually your struggle.
This, I believe, is the real reason the film has been made and has been done as poorly and misguidedly as it has. Sorry to ruin it for the filmmakers but women in the UK have equal rights under law, and if someone were to be sexually discriminated against in the workplace, or paid less than a male for doing the same job, then there are fairly robust legal procedures they can utilise. Another constant gripe you hear in the industry is that there aren’t enough films with female central characters (which is rubbish by the way) and especially historical ones – well here was the perfect chance, and what did they elect to do instead? Create a fiction against an ‘historical backdrop’ robbing the movie of any real meaning with their creation of whimsy and prejudice because to actually make it a proper historical film, they would actually have to go and do some real work, Heaven forbid.
Ah, but if they managed to persuade large numbers of women to watch and endorse the film, partly by riling them up against this mystical modern oppression in order to get more ticket sales and thusly improve their box office potential as female filmmakers, then this, potentially, could allow them to negotiate better pay deals with studios. In effect, they want you the public to sort out their problems by giving them your money, and they’ve designed this rather insidious project just for that purpose. It’s incredible, why don’t they just strike like everyone else? The writers in Hollywood went on strike over pay several years back and brought the system to its knees. They moan and moan and moan and yet do nothing to actually tackle the issue – presumably they have to be a part of the same union in order to act in Hollywood, since the industry cannot survive without actresses, and since fair pay is in every woman’s interests (and every man’s as well ultimately), then surely a one hundred percent withdrawal of services until better independent watchdogs or standards could be put in place would be successful?
Ironically, much like the women in the film, their tactics are more likely to simply get other people’s backs up, people who may have agreed and supported them otherwise, and indeed there is little acknowledgement of the nature of individual clients negotiating their own prices or producers having the right to pay whatever they are willing to pay etc. nor the role sex appeal can play in bankability, but when you have Amanda Seyfried reportedly finding out she got paid ten percent of what her male co-star got paid, at a time when both were equivalent box office draws and had similar sized parts, and Keira Knightley getting paid roughly half the amount Orlando Bloom did for the third Pirates film (the difference was presumably for acting lessons) it’s clear something is badly wrong somewhere.
A few days ago, a report was headlined on the BBC news that women in the UK are paid 19% less than men. A typical attention grabbing headline that was shot to pieces when the details were eventually gone into, such as that figure including part-time workers – when adjusted for full-time work the percentage dropped to 9% and the primary reason for the difference appeared to simply be the low numbers of women working in many of the highest paid sectors, engineering for example, with no data on why that was the case. This was delivered by one of the women behind the study who gleefully began her interview by stating women outperformed men at all levels in secondary education, something which sounds a little dubious but along with the distinct lack of any real science all but ruined the reports credibility. This is very typical of late; gender roles, parity and feminism have become enormous hooks for the British media to report on, one could be forgiven for thinking it’s when they don’t have anything else to say, and very rarely are any real arguments or facts presented but rather the whole caboodle is forcibly inserted into every issue and thrust upon every film that’s released.
In interviews for the release of this film, Streep had a go at review website Rotten Tomatoes for not representing enough female critics and thus providing, she argued, a skewed consideration of film in favour of a male point of view. Garbage. Rotten Tomatoes has very strict criteria to reach before you can be a part of it, and it’s simply the case that not enough female critics reach this criteria, it cannot possibly be the fault of the site itself unless corruption is involved and I’m not aware of any evidence to suggest that – and frankly I find the idea of films for men and films for women absolutely disgusting, so it really oughtn’t to matter what gender the critic is. I know just as many women who love ‘Die Hard’, ‘Sin City’ and classic westerns as I do men who love ‘Twilight’, ‘Grease’ and ‘Dirty Dancing’. Similarly, Romola Garai, who plays Alice Haughton in the film, decided to announce her career was being hampered by the lack of childcare facilities at work for her. Wow, imagine if every workplace in the land suddenly had to provide a crèche for their employees, or rather their children, to use. Ironically, numerous studios might actually have the space and money to provide a supervised crèche which would be great for everyone on-set, so despite her implication of discrimination she has hit on a pretty decent suggestion.
Finally, one of the most telling elements of the cynical absolute nonsense behind this film is the casting of Helena Bonham Carter as one of the main suffragettes. In real-life she is close friends with British Prime Minister David Cameron (herself descended from former Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, who also features in this film coincidentally) the leader of the Conservative party who not only have traditionally been against votes for women (many feared it would lead to universal suffrage for men, thus the working man whom the Conservatives punish) but also votes for anyone that takes power away from them, against equal rights for everyone unless they have money (they are at present attempting to annul the Human Rights Act, which the British public seem to be largely unawares of), and they are trying to make it more difficult for people to exercise their right to strike fairly, and Cameron himself is personally responsible for introducing measures that have resulted in the deaths of thousands of poor and disabled people up and down the country whilst giving himself and the wealthy tax cuts, and they are even redrawing the political map to give themselves a bigger share of the seats next election.
Bonham Carter has publicly endorsed Cameron, and thus the party, saying what a nice guy he is – her choosing to be in this film is a sick joke since she is joined at the hip with the right wing of British politics. Her message is vote Conservative girls, and who profits from this? Why, she does of course, and her aristocratic rich friends – she ironically gave her support to the domestic violence campaign group ‘Sisters Uncut’, who were protesting against the film at its premiere after cuts to domestic violence services, saying “I’m glad our film has done something. That’s exactly what it’s there for.” – who is responsible for the cuts? David Cameron. At a time when a film encouraging people to vote and engage in politics would have been a good idea, this has been hijacked by all the wrong people.