London Film Festival 2015 #2 // Flaunt

The London Film Festival kicks off with Suffragette

So people do still look at Time Out, at least when there’s some contro t-shirt action on display—four, no less, of the Suffragette cast blaring out “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” across their chests in the magazine’s London edition this week.

Yes, out of context that Pankhurst quote isn’t exactly subtle, and once uttered in the film itself it now leaves a rather sour taste. That sourness only grows once you realize the extent to which the women’s suffrage movement in the UK was whitewashed by these suffragette leaders, denying women of color and their own struggle any credence, sometimes in the harshest terms.

These PR masterminds certainly know what they’re at—cause a stir ahead of theSuffragette European premiere? Done. Offended much? Enough, it seems—to the point that the stunt has detracted from the film’s rousing message of resistance and, in the process, alienated an audience who might brandish that message most credibly.

Streep goes from Thatcher of The Iron Lady (also penned by Morgan) to Emmeline Pankhurst here in a single scene—the burning platform of the Women’s Social and Political Union beneath her, while her foot soldiers skulk about brickin’ windows, burnin’ shit—putting the rage firmly back into suffragette.

A semi-historical drama—or more accurately, a period piece with some factual grounding—Suffragette invents a new character in Maud Watts (Mulligan) and drops her into the film’s ideological core. This mother and wife finds herself pushed ever closer to the edge of outrage by her overbearing, penis-having oppressors at every turn, in her job at an East London laundry works, at home, by the authorities—with each doing their very best Russell Brand impressions to boot.

But Suffragette really hits its stride when close-up—its broad-stroke historical summarizing feels too shorn of any complexity. The very human drama carrying it—of the real personal impact of this rebellion—is deftly depicted. Imagine: you have no other option but to join the cause, fight for what you believe in, yet now you’re in prison, beaten regularly, force fed, with no income, no social standing—how could your relationships possibly survive?

Showing us the consequences of the outcast life of the rebel, after bonds of family, neighbors and friends quickly shatter, Morgan and director Gavron do well to make us feel a small part of these women’s huge collective sacrifice.

When the film finds its natural climax with Emily Davison’s demise, under the king’s horse on Epsom racecourse—a moment so chillingly caught by Pathé cameras (coincidentally, one of the film’s distributors)—it brings to a rather abrupt end this story.Suffragette feels like a glancing blow of a film, albeit timely, that could have struck harder and deeper. The documentary He Named Me Malala on this year’s programme, about the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Malala Yousafzai—shot in the head by Taliban for championing females’ right to education—may pick up where this left off.

But how about those t-shirts, hey?

Written by Declan Tan