seanlangtheatre

Defending “Suffragette”

Unlike many commentators I have a number of problems with Lucy Delap and Julie Gottlieb’s commentary on the recent film Suffragette, starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep. They both clearly enjoyed the film, as I did, but I was put off at the start by their assertion that:

Both of us have done research on and teach about women’s suffrage and its aftermath. When you are so close to a subject – a topic in history or a much-scrutinised novel – that is brought to the big screen, it is inevitable that you will feel that your creativity has been somehow violated, that you have just been divested of intellectual ownership of a most lovingly cultivated piece of imaginative terrain.

I’m sorry, but I find that a remarkably self-regarding piece of nonsense. Historians don’t ‘own’ the past: it’s there for anyone to explore, enjoy or make of what they will. Had the film taken a specific book one or other of them had written and produced a deliberate travesty of it, then they could justly have complained about their creativity being violated, but to make such an extreme claim just because a filmmaker decides to make a film about one of the areas of their research, or to imagine that they have been divested of intellectual ownership (ownership???) comes across as remarkable arrogance. Perhaps it’s no great surprise to read that, in their view:

It is inevitable that historians, and specifically women’s and suffrage historians, will watch this film differently to the general moviegoer.

That sounds a little bit like (actually, it sounds very like) looking down on the hoi polloi. Obviously, historians tend to approach period dramas in the light of their subject knowledge, just as, presumably scientists approach sci-fi and soldiers come to war films with more expert knowledge than the rest of us. I don’t think, however, that historical expertise on its own qualifies academic historians to offer much of a commentary on history as presented either through film or on stage, unless they can also bring to their analysis some experience of the process of translating history into one of these creative media.

Take this rather condescending passage:

We agreed with Helen McCarthy’s assessment that the treatment of working-class politics was trivial. The laundry workers are presented as passive or aggressive towards suffrage politics, and there is no hint that laundry workers were themselves striking and organising to better their conditions. Moreover, as Laura Schwarz argued, the ‘rescue’ of a laundry worker facing sexual abuse to go into domestic service in the house of a middle-class suffragist refused to acknowledge the vulnerabilities of being a servant.

It is by no means clear what they mean by ‘trivial’, except perhaps that it does not match the standards required of an academic paper. But why should it? The film is trying to tell a story with which many people will be unfamiliar, certainly in detail; any filmmaker or playwright will tell you that there are only so many narrative strands that an audience can keep going at any one time, especially within the confines of a single film (soap operas, in which we have had many weeks to get to know the characters, can stretch this limit rather further, but even they cannot stretch it too far). As it happens, the nature of the women’s conditions in the laundry was conveyed to great efffect both in the scenes set in the laundry itself and in the powerful testimony delivered by Carey Mulligan’s character, the fictional Maud, to the House of Commons hearing. But the film is about the women’s suffrage movement and Maud is, in essence, a stand-in for us, the modern audience: we discover the story of the movement through her eyes, and we are exposed to its internal dilemmas and the heroism of its individuals through her own exposure to them. It’s not a straightforward story, and the film is to be commended for having put across some of its complexity as successfully as it did, not berated for not dealing with other stories it didn’t set out to tell.

More pertinently, however, Delap and Gottlieb show the common academic shortcoming when it comes to commenting on film, of wanting characters both to be believable (who doesn’t?) but also representative of as wide a body of opinion and experience as possible. This is reminiscent of the sort of discredited “differentiated empathy” tasks with which schoolchildren were presented back in the 1980s, whereby their coursework task, imagining they were a soldier in the trenches writing a letter home, also required them, for the highest marks but with ever decreasing believability, to include others’ points of view: the Germans’ perhaps, or the High Command’s, or the women at home. So it is not enough that the laundry worker Maud rescues at the end of the film has been subjected to predatory male sexual advances at the factory: she must also experience it in the house she is taken to. But why should she? To say that, because sexual advantage was taken of serving girls, sexual advantage must be taken of every serving girl we encounter, is not to see where academic history parts company with real life as it was lived by individuals in the past.

A similar issue arose in the studio discussion that followed the broadcast on the BBC of the recent German Second World War drama Generation War, when a panel of historians, including the late and much lamented David Cesarani, berated the series director for allowing some of his characters to depart from the general pattern of people’s experiences during the war (I haven’t been able to find footage of that discussion online, but another, hosted by Music Box Films and the Goethe-Institut in Chicago is available on YouTube). Yet we know from everyday life that, while we are all of us typical of our social groups in many ways, we also depart from the norm – that is, after all, what makes us interesting. It may well be right to point out that it would be very rare and very difficult for a Jew to still be living in Berlin by 1942 or to point out that many girls going into service would face unwanted sexual attentions, but it doesn’t mean that NO Jew could possibly have been in Berlin then, nor that EVERY girl was molested, and filmmakers and writers are quite entitled to give us characters who confound our historical expectations.

Delap and Gottlieb compare Maud to Forrest Gump, in the sense that she appears at all the key moments of the movement, including the famous 1913 “Suffragette Derby” (I did wonder for a time if the filmmakers were going to take the ultimate liberty of having her throw herself under the King’s horse instead of Emily Wilding Davison, which really would have been a step too far, but thankfully they restrained themselves). The idea of inserting characters into the historical narrative is a familiar conceit that goes back further than Forrest Gump – one thinks of Woody Allen’s Zelig or George MacDonald Fraser’s decidedly unfeminist Flashman novels. Historically, of course it is implausible, but it is a useful narrative device which allows us to see things which strict accuracy or plausibility would deny us. We are familiar with the requirement that theatre makes of us to suspend our disbelief; the artistry with which film can recreate the look of the past (Delap and Gottlieb might have paid more generous tribute to the film’s stunning recreation of the period, including beautifully realised presentations of a busy Regent Street and of Derby Day at Epsom) can sometimes make us forget just how much it too demands of our disbelief. If I were to start pooh-poohing Maud’s appearance at every key moment in the story, what I am I to do about James Bond, the central character in the next film I went to see?

Personally, I found the fictional character of Maud well crafted and well played; she had an emotional depth and her experiences highlighted many of the very real dilemmas that working class suffragettes faced, unlike their middle class sisters, who had servants at home to look after their children while they were in prison. I found her distress at losing charge of her son moving and her simple but powerful testimony to the House of Commons about life and work in the laundry was, for me, one of the highlights of the film. I simply do not recognise the picture that Delap and Gottfried paint:

The lack of a well-developed personality at the centre of the film meant that the drama and sensation of Suffragette piggybacked on the intrinsic drama of the historical events – Maud’s character and predicament ultimately add little to the imaginative landscape of suffrage history.

In the end, of course, these are simply different individual responses to the same film: I think Delap and Gottfried have been unfair to the film; they will no doubt think I have been unfair on them. But at root here is something rather deeper. I think they – and, to be fair, historians as a class – apply quite the wrong criteria to judging history films. They have judged “Suffragette” as a work of history and found it wanting, rather than as a film. They have applied unreasonable and impracticable historical expectations to it and they have commented on it from an assumed position of superiority which I have to say I find off-putting. I don’t suppose their comments will deter anyone who reads them from seeing the film, nor do I imagine they would want them to, but they do reflect why historians often make very poor analysts of historical film.

But the question of how to assess a history film requires more discussion and I will return to the subject in subsequent posts.