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Cinema in Focus: ‘Sufragette’

3 Stars — Though-Provoking

Freedom to express one’s self is a cherished American tradition. It is not by accident that the First Amendment of the Constitution is the provision of “freedom of speech.”

Even so, this is a relatively new concept around the world and is still not widely agreed to by many countries. We sometimes forget that it was only two generations ago that women could not vote in the United States, and that four generations ago only white male property owners held absolute voice and authority in much of the world.

Based on a true experience, Suffragette begins its story in 1912 England with a growing discontent by women who had no say in the public life of their country. Men not only held the vote exclusively, but a husband held the right to determine what happens with a woman’s inheritance, banking, children’s education, and whether to keep children or give them up for adoption even against the mother’s will.

In this frustrated state, a movement to gain the vote is led by Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), who occasionally reappears from hiding from the authorities to speak to hundreds of women to urge them to engage in civil disobedience to get the attention of the nation.

The real story, though, is the sacrifice that ordinary women had to make to get the justice they sought. This is the nature of any change in history, that regular people make extraordinary sacrifices to gain a voice in their own destiny.

This part of the film is seen primarily through the eyes of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a woman who works in a laundry along with her husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw). She is not a joiner or an activist, but she is slowly drawn into the battle for the voting rights of women by her co-worker, Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), who is a vocal crusader.

If change were easy, everyone would do it naturally. What almost always comes more naturally is the desire to keep the peace even in a bad situation.

It is akin to having a serious medical condition and knowing that an operation could save your life, but you don’t want to face the pain of surgery. The choice you have to make is to either keep the situation the way it is and risk dying a slow death, or go into surgery and open, heal and close the wound, and then wait out the pain that comes with it.

It is only when the pain of not doing something becomes greater than the pain of action that we then become willing to act.

Maud Watts is married to a gentle and loving man and she adores their only child, a son named George (Adam Michael Dodd). Little does she realize that the activity that she is being drawn into will result in causing her to lose her son and husband.

Her sacrifice is mirrored in the lives of her co-worker, Violet, and a local pharmacist’s wife, Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), who both face beatings, loss of their jobs, and multiple arrests for stating their views and ultimately encouraging acts of civil unrest to make their point.

It is only when a dramatic death of one of their co-crusaders occurs in front of the king of England that public attention rises to the level in which change begins to happen.

Any social or political change takes 10 to 25 years to make its impact, and in the case of these 1912 suffragettes, full voting rights were not instituted in England until 1928. In the United States it occurred in 1920, but for some European countries such as Switzerland, it didn’t happen until as late as 1971.

What is tragic is that in a third of the world today, including major U.S. allies and trading partners such as Saudi Arabia, women still do not have many basic rights, including the right to vote.

Suffragette, therefore, is not just a view of history, but in many ways is a call to action for a world that has a long way to go to provide justice for all and a voice for the dispossessed.


» In virtually all nations of the world throughout history, men have dominated and subjugated women. What do you think is the cause of this behavior?

» When the Christian faith declared almost 2,000 years ago that in Christ there are no gender distinctions (or racial or socio-economic), thus restoring the equality of God’s Edenic paradise, the intention was for the church to model this for the world. Yet in many branches of the church, equality of women has not yet been restored. Why do you think that is true?

» The fact that women continue to struggle to be treated fairly is still a cause for great pain throughout the world. What are you doing to bring an end to this injustice?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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