Angela Down at center as Sylvia Pankhurst (Episode 6 of 1974 BBC Shoulder to Shoulder)
Anne-Marie Duff, Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter as Violet Miller, Maud Watts, Edith Ellyn (2015 BFI Suffragette)
Dear friends and readers,
You have two tremendous treats to avail yourself of this November where we are enjoying a spate of significant politic films. It’s another one of these re-creations of an excellent, original and effective mini-series of the 1970s 40 plus years on (e.g., Upstairs and Downstairs, Poldark). It’s also another riveting new woman’s film, the kind scripted, directed on some woman’s issue (e.g., Bletchley Circle to The Crimson Field, scripted Sarah Phelps).
On-line at YouTube you can watch six 75 minute episodes of Shoulder to Shoulder, (without commercials), and hear the theme song Ethel Smyth’s grand March of the Women:
Episode 1: Emmeline Pankhurst (Sian Phillips); Episode 2: Annie Kenney (Georgia Brown); Episode 3: Lady Constance Lytton (Judy Parfitt); Episode 4: Christabel Pankhurst (Patricia Quinn); Episode 5: Outrage! (it ends on Emily Davison’s suicide by throwing herself under a group of race-horses, Sheila Ballantine as Davison and Bob Hoskins as Jack Dunn); Episode 6: Sylvia Pankhurst (Angela Down).
And in cinemas, there’s Suffragette, screenplay Abi Morgan (who wrote Truth), directed by Sarah Gavron with a cameo peformance as Mrs Pankhurst by Meryl Streep. It also has the theme song, but it only comes in towards the film’s close (as uplift).
I have no reviews of Shoulder to Shoulder to offer; I knew of it by word-of-mouth from other women, especially anyone who has written or read about the suffragettes. I suspect it’s not available as a DVD for the same reason as the Bletchley Circle was cancelled after a second successful year.
Suffragette has been reviewed, not altogether favorably (see Variety). Perhaps since it is a woman’s film, and also about the woman’s movement, the critics have been very hard on it (see the New Yorker especially). A. O. Scott of The New York Times Suffragette justice.
This one has an argument to make, or rather a series of arguments about the workings of patriarchal power, the complexities of political resistance and the economic implications of the right to vote. You might come for the feminism, stay for the class consciousness and arrive at the conclusion that they’re not so distinct after all.
Probably the re-booting (as in the case of the others this year) of Shoulder to Shoulder into Suffragette will please modern audiences more than Shoulder to Shoulder, with its 1970s staged dramaturgy, slower movement, longer scenes and speeches, less closely graphic violence (though Shoulder to Shoulder is as unbearable in its force-feedings and it has several not just one), and I hope people will be drawn to Suffragette. Both movies show how vulnerable and frail are individual revolutionaries and movements against the power of a gov’t with military and legal powers to control, punish, silence, and kill people. Still over-praising something (I believe) in the end is seen through by people and distrusted so upfront I’d like to say that good as Suffragette is, Shoulder to Shoulder is finally superior art.
Police breaking up the women’s demonstration and starting to beat them up
Suffragette‘s central problem is it’s too short and it has been influenced by the use of gimmick and juiced-up plots in mystery-spy thrillers common in mainstream films. So the focus in Suffragette comes from a little climax-ridden plot-design where we are supposed to care intensely if a police officer, Steed (Brendan Gleeson) turns our heroine into a mole on behalf of a gov’t bent on surveillance headed by the heartless monster, a fictionalized side-kick of Asquith (Samuel West) and his henchmen. Scenario familiar? Here is Steed trying to secude, frighten, & bribe our heroine:
We then enter into thriller-like story arcs where our heroines outwit the police in planting bombs, breaking windows, and finally managing to reach the newspapers when unexpectedly Emily Davison (Natalie Press, the daughter in Bletchley Circle) throws herself under the horses in a race course watched by the king.
Emily Davison contemplating what to do to reach the king, or attract attention (Maud is unaware of the lengths Emily is prepared to go to)
This is not to say that Suffragette doesn’t do ample justice deeply even (partly due to superb performances) to the human feelings among the women and in delineating the break-up of the marriage of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) — though it chickened out in showing us the scenes of harsh domestic violence clearly visited on Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) off-stage. Since a punch-shock element was what the film partly relied on, this was a loss.
In fact though Suffragette also delivers a kind of history lesson. It may be said to be equally organized as moral paradigm. Maud is a factory worker doing hard labor ironing in a laundry for years, during much of it in her earliest molested by her employer continually as a condition of remaining employed.
Given an extra job to deliver a package at the end if the day, Maud rushes for a bus
Maud is therefore naturally attracted to a hope of some better life she intuits the women’s movement offers; when she agrees to go along to listen to Mrs Miller’s speech, she finds herself persuaded by one of the MP’s wives (Romola Garai) to read a prepared speech. Instead she ends up answering questions put to her by the prime minister, Asquith (Adrian Schiller). He asks her what does she think the vote can do for her. She can come up with nothing; she does not know how it could improve her life. The film’s story then proceeds to teach Maud and us why the vote influences women’s lives. Why votes matter.
Maud is slowly radicalized for the same reasons the women in Shoulder to Shoulder are (see just below), and becomes a suffragette. She demonstrates and is beaten and punished. At this her husband, Sonny (Ben Whislaw) becomes humiliated, shamed, and his manhood so threatened, that he throws her out of their apartment. He has the undoubted right by custom. He clearly also despised her when he married her because he knew she had been molested for years and so he regarded himself as “saving her,” putting her on the “right path.” His attitudes are all screwed up by his society’s norms. They lead him to destroy her and the marriage. Worse, he has the legal right to refuse her any access to her child and the right to give the boy up for adoption, which he proceeds to do when he finds he cannot care for the child himself.
Had women had the vote, laws would not give him such a complete right over her and his child. Could she get the vote now, she could vote against such laws and customs. At the film’s close a series of intertitles tell us that five years after a portion of women were given the vote, the custody laws were changed and women had a right to keep their children. Sonny could no longer punish her, himself and their child like this.
Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) works as a doctor, and apothecary in her husband’s druggist shop: we learn she was not allowed to go on to professional school as women were not allowed; the story at the close implies that with the vote, such schools would have to open their doors to women.
Mrs Miller has nowhere to turn from an abusive husband; she will if she can change parliament. There is no help against the employer-molester; there are not enough jobs and those available to women are mostly dreadful hard work. We see a motif in other women’s films, like Water where an older woman saves a young widow who is being coerced into prostitution: Maud rescues a girl from sex harassment and degradation: she knows Mrs Miller’s daughter is submitting to sexual aggression by the boss, so daring arrest, she shows up at the laundry, takes the girl to the house of the MP wife (Garai) and the wife hires her. She is now protected insofar as the system allows: based on a decent kind individual. The movie-viewer can think to her or himself the equivalent of what legislation can provide today: women’s shelters from domestic violence and abuse.
These stories of the fictionalized characters are said to be partly based on real women, but they are enunciated in such a way as to show the viewer why the vote matters.
The only historical women we see are (briefly) Emily Davison and Meryl Streep as Mrs Pankhurst, posed to recall Sian Phillips in the same role:
There are no explicit paradigms or lessons taught in Shoulder to Shoulder, the cast for Shoulder to Shoulder are not working class women (the “foot soldiers” of the movement, as the policeman tells Maud who her “masters” will dump when they don’t need them, after their lives have been ruined), but the elite types who ran the movement. Except — and it’s a big except — the lesson in the grinding nature of the experience of proselytizing, punishment, political in-fighting and finally prison which we are given a full brunt of, and our heroines (except Mrs Pankhurst the highest ranking) are force-feed repeatedly, humiliated by the clothing they must wear, put into solitary confinement.
Christabel starting out (her first speech)
In comparison to Suffragette our heroines’ sufferings are intangible. Respectability, loss of society (but they don’t want that), companionships, acceptance of a much harder life where they do strain to support themselves by teaching, working in shops (or owning them). As in the other 1970s mini-series, our central characters are drawn from the elite, while in 2015 they are drawn from working people. So it takes a little imagination to enter into what is presented.
OTOH, just about all the characters in Shoulder to Shoulder represent real historical people, much of what is presented is accurate (if much must be left out).
The real Annie Kenney
Georgia Brown exuberant as Annie
There is therefore much less false melodrama, and because of its length, we get a long arc of the whole movement from the later 1890s to when Mrs Pankhurst and Christabel supported WW1, and the aftermath of that war.
The most moving episode in Shoulder to Shoulder focuses on the real Constance Lytton (described in my previous blog this week, Victorian into Edwardian, scroll down) who takes on a working class persona and the treatment meted out to working women in prison is inflicted on Lytton.
A photo of Lytton dressed as Jane Warton: remarkably Judy Parfitt comes close to looking just like this
This is the only still I could find on the Net of Parfitt — she is to the left, feeling utterly wretched after having been beaten and force-fed and is now forced to wait for a judicial hearing
The focus in Shoulder to Shoulder is on the human relationships among the characters, and the drama comes out of ideological, political, psychological clashes, its power on how the characters are transformed, variously destroyed, shattered, turned into ruthless political machines who show no gratitude towards those who helped them, especially in the case of Christabel Pankhurst
Christabel fiercely waving her flag
towards the Pethick-Lawrences, a couple who gave up their fortune, respectability, good and moderately useful lives to the movement only to be thrown away, and towards her sister, Sylvia who persisted in wanting equally to fight for social justice for all people, including working class men, immigrants, issues like civil liberty.
Sylvia setting up a shop in a working class neighborhood
Both movies make the point strongly that the prison experience is the second reality the women’s movement contended with that radicalized them, and I now realize this is a central theme of Lytton’s book. Lytton’s book is as much about prisons as it is about the suffragette movement. She makes the point that one way you can gauge your success as a political movement is if the establishment puts its leaders in jail.
The police have kept an eye on and take Maud away
Lytton’s book appears in both Shoulder to Shoulder and Suffragette as Dreams; the title today is Prisons and Prisoners (Broadview Press, edited by Jason Haslam). (I am now in the middle of Constance Lytton’s memoir of her life from the angle of her conversion to the womens’ movement and radicalization through her experience dressed as a working class woman, Jane Warton, in prisons.)
Lytton opens with showing the reader that the votes-for-women movement emerged as a possibly effective force when 1) the upper middle and middle class women enacting leading, and making connections for it realized after 3 decades they would never get the vote unless they severely disrupted the workings of everyday society; and 2)the women were radicalized into real empathy with working and lower class women by their experience of the harsh indifference, cruelty, even torture of the prison system with its principle mechanisms of violent punishment (including force-feeding which led to further pain in vomiting), humiliation, brutalization, and destruction of personalities through alienation. This is what Lytton shows the reader; as a person with a bad heart, she died not long after after her release from the treatment she had received.
Lytton may not appear as one of the characters in Suffragette but her words provide a voice-over as Maud Watts reads her book; and she is the central character of the crucially effective episode of the mini-series.
The group early on in Suffragette
The group towards the end of Shoulder to Shoulder
The sense of life as on-going, a cycle, so characteristic of women’s art ends both films, in this case politically appropriate. Lytton really emerges only in one episode (3), and Davison in another (5), and of the on-going characters my favorite was finally Sylvia, partly because I’ve loved other characters Angela Down played at the time (she was Jo March in a 1970 Little Women) A long talk with the inimitable Bob Hoskins (very young) precedes Sylvia’s final walk off onto the street with her latest ally, Flora Drummond (Sally Miles). When I get the book (I’ve bought it from a used bookstore site, I’ll blog again). We are made to feel we have gone through so much (6 times 75 minutes is a lot of experience time), and the photography of the two inside the crowd makes the point they are just two women inside a larger group.
In Suffragette after Emily has thrown herself under the horses, we see Maud, shaken, but walking off. She must live on; she has shown she will find her son and communicate with him; Edith’s husband locked her in the bathroom to prevent her from joining lest she be arrested again (she has a bad heart we are told); we see the police officer, Steed, his employers; Maud, Violet Miller and Edith get together again in the WSPC office.
The writers for the 1970s series are among the best of the era: Ken Taylor, Hugh Whittemore, Alan Plater, Douglas Livingstone (originally they wanted women scriptwriters but the era just didn’t have enough of these); its creators were Georgia Brown, Verity Lambert, Midge Mackenzie, directors Waris Hussein and Moira Armstrong. If their characters are too harmonious and well-bred to begin with, by the end they are strongly pressured, conflicted, angry. Suffragette has a woman script writer, Abi Morgan, woman director, Sarah Phelps, three women producers Alison Owen, Faye Ward.
The title Margaret Mitchell wanted to give her famous historical novel, Gone with the Wind, was Tomorrow is another day. It’s a saying that captures the underlying structural idea of many a woman’s art work