I really, really, really wanted to love Suffragette, the 2015 movie starring Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep, Helena Bonham Carter, and Anne-Marie Duff as British suffragettes across the class lines. It wasn’t a terrible movie by any means, but it just wasn’t inspired. The acting was good, the costumes were historically accurate, the story is super important … and yet it all just felt like it was good for you, like it’s the 1970s and your mom randomly sticks tofu into meals because she read it was healthy (true story).
Carey Mulligan plays Maud Watts, a fictional Londoner who has worked in a laundry since she was young. Life is relatively grey: work is hard, free time is scarce, but she takes some small joys in her husband and young son.
Maud meets Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), another working-class woman who is a committed suffragette. Maud is wary at first, but over time she’s drawn to the suffrage movement … particularly as she sees the injustices perpetrated against the movement (like violent beatings by police and unjust imprisonment).
The film is committed to making sure the audience understands how crappy women’s situations were, so interwoven into the story are sexual harassment, women’s lack of rights to their children, and many more shitty situations. Maud gets drawn to the movement when she’s asked to testify before the prime minister about women’s lives in the factory in which she works.
The story isn’t only working-class women; as Maud gets more and more involved in the movement, she hooks up with Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), a middle-class chemist; sees a bit of Alice Haughton (Romola Garai), the wife of a politician; and sees/hears Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) speak.
I appreciate that they went for (mostly) grit. The women’s movement, especially suffrage, is long enough ago that their hard-won gains are seriously taken for granted these days. And, of course, ever-present misogyny means that they can be discounted as “silly girls.” On these counts, this film will be great for high school history classes to watch (and is worth showing to that annoying cousin who goes on about men not holding doors for women).
But, it’s kind of relentlessly downtrodden. There’s a few moments of sweetness when Maud is with her son and the happiness that comes from camaraderie with Violet. But otherwise, it’s all dark and depressing and overly good for you.
All of this “eat your vegetables” translates to the costumes, which were designed by Jane Petrie. The upside is that she really manages to portray that these are clothes, not costumes; she gets the year (1912) bang-on; and she does a fabulous job showing the class spectrum.
The down side is that, aside from the green, white, and purple colors in the suffragettes’ badges and sashes, the costumes (from high to low class) are unrelentingly grey and beige. (I literally had ONE moment of a sort of “ooo.” Now, I don’t expect every movie to be full of pretty pretty princesses. But I wouldn’t have minded one or more costumes that I could enjoy aesthetically.)
All of this was calculated. According to the New York Times, “She [Petrie] approached the film as she would any other ‘gritty urban drama,’ she said, and pored over the work of early street photographers like Edward Linley Sambourne” (In ‘Suffragette,’ Recreating the Silhouettes of Social Change). And indeed, everyone looks very natural and their clothing very lived-in. This is a rare film where you could actually imagine what it would feel like to wear these clothes, because they are presented as clothes.
What is fascinating to me is that according to Petrie, “Almost all of the costumes in the film are original garments from the period. I only made clothes for wealthy characters or for scenes where I knew things could get destroyed, such as Maud’s skirt for the riot” (“Suffragette” Costume Designer Jane Petrie Talks Dressing Carey Mulligan and Finding Inspiration in Ordinary Life). I know I read somewhere (but of course, can’t find it now) that they were able to do this because the kinds of clothes they wanted weren’t the kinds most purchasers of antique clothing want (i.e., the shiny stuff). But I’m still impressed that they found antique clothes that were large enough for the actresses (by the way, my semi-educated theory about that is that most larger/medium sized clothes would be easily handed down and worn out, while smaller clothes were harder to pass on and so more likely to survive) … and, that the clothing held up to filming!
The filmmakers’ commitment to historical accuracy is very satisfying, given just how many “based on a true story” films/TV productions are heavily tweaked these days. You can tell that the they felt a responsibility to the real historical people whose story they are telling, and as a lover of history, I really appreciate that reverence. The New York Times writes, “To recreate the medals [given to suffragettes who spent time in prison for the cause], she [Petrie] went to the British company that originally made them, Toye, Kenning and Spencer, which kept an archive and was able to reproduce the awards from the original die casts, she said. ‘It was a really lovely thread connecting us to the women who originally wore them'” (In ‘Suffragette,’ Recreating the Silhouettes of Social Change).
The problem, again, is that the visuals of this film — including the costumes — are just unrelentingly grey. I saw this quote in that same New York Times article: “But that’s also when Maud’s look begins to transition, she [Petrie] said. She adopts a small bow tie, brighter fabrics, jauntier hats. ‘She becomes more eclectic because she’s getting hand-me-downs from women who had more money than her. She’s empowered and begins to emulate these women she’s meeting'” (In ‘Suffragette,’ Recreating the Silhouettes of Social Change). And I was surprised. Because other than a lot of white worn in the final scene of the movie, I didn’t notice anything brightening or in any way getting any more visually interesting.
And before you think that everyone was scrubbing floors, there were upper-class characters. Romola Garai plays a politician’s wife. She only has about two or three scenes, but she would be one character who could provide an opportunity for more visual interest. But, she’s in brown. And beige.
Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst was another character who could have worn something more interesting. She’s only in one scene, but she has a big speech and while you wouldn’t want her to look frilly or fluffy, she could look impressive. Instead — meh? Of her design for Pankhurst, Petrie said she wanted to reference a photograph of Pankhurst where she wore a coat that was reminiscent of preacher’s robes, but, “I definitely pared it down. Her clothes would have been busier than what I did. There would have been more layers, more ruching, pleating going on, but I didn’t want to get too concerned with all the layers and fashions of the day and distract from what she was doing there” (In ‘Suffragette,’ Recreating the Silhouettes of Social Change). I get what she was going for, but I think she could have done a smart tailored look that might have made a stronger visual impact.
Here’s three more images of Pankhurst wearing what I think would be more interesting looks:
So. It’s not a bad movie, it’s just not inspired, either in how it tells its story or in the costume design. I’d recommend giving it a watch … but probably wait for streaming.
Have you seen Suffragette? What did you think?