Women in the lead

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story - Michael Bodey David Strat­ton

Few so­cial or po­lit­i­cal is­sues of his­toric sig­nif­i­cance have been drama­tised as rarely as the suf­fragette move­ment. There are nu­mer­ous films about North­ern Ire­land’s Trou­bles, for in­stance, and next to none about the cam­paign for women’s right to vote.

Film­maker Sarah Gavron hopes to re­dress that. The di­rec­tor of Suf­fragette notes there are three projects in devel­op­ment about the Bos­ton bomb­ings, but as far she knows the only nod to the Bri­tish suf­fragette move­ment came in the mid-1970s minis­eries Shoul­der to Shoul­der. “And the rea­son the story has taken so long to get on screen is [that] women’s his­tory has been marginalised,” she says. “I wasn’t taught it at school. It’s taken ages to get into univer­sity cur­ricu­lums. It’s been re­duced to a foot­note.”

Gavron’s film, writ­ten by Abi Morgan ( Shame, The Iron Lady) and star­ring Carey Mul­li­gan as a work­ing-class war­rior for the Bri­tish move­ment led by Em­me­line Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), goes some way to right­ing that wrong. Yet it has been re­leased and is gain­ing plau­dits within a film in­dus­try gnash­ing its teeth about the un­der-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women, no­tably as di­rec­tors, and their in­equitable pay.

Re­cently Gavron at­tended a panel ses­sion in Los An­ge­les fea­tur­ing Academy Award “con­tenders”. Of the 45 films in­vited, Suf­fragette was the only one made by a fe­male di­rec­tor. She’s happy to have re­dressed the im­bal­ance to some ex­tent, but says it was “in­stinc­tive”.

“Women were drawn to the film and we were drawn to women as team mem­bers,” she says, be­fore not­ing the “great men” also in­volved in the pro­duc­tion.

In­deed Suf­fragette ar­rives in cin­e­mas at a time when it could al­most be seen as top­i­cal, not least given that Saudi Ara­bian women have only just won the right to vote.

“It’s never quite as de­lib­er­ate as all that but it does feel like there is a con­flu­ence of things hap­pen­ing and there’s a mo­men­tum like I can’t ever re­mem­ber in my ca­reer,” Gavron says.

The one hur­dle for Suf­fragette is the crit­i­cism that the film, set in 1912 Lon­don, fo­cuses on one mi­nor char­ac­ter (Mul­li­gan’s Maude, an amal­gam of a few real-life char­ac­ters) rather than the broader sweep of the move­ment.

Gavron, whose most re­cent fea­ture was the well-re­ceived adap­ta­tion of Mon­ica Ali’s novel Brick Lane, says the quest to “find the right way” into the story, af­ter an in­cred­i­ble amount of re­search, is partly why the film took so long to bring to screen. “And as we were re­search­ing it, it be­came more mar­ketable, oddly, be­cause it seemed to get ever more timely,” she says.

“It was over­due but it seemed to res­onate with so much of what was go­ing on around the world and there was this resur­gence, if you like, of fe­male voices chal­leng­ing re­pres­sion, per­haps be­cause of the dig­i­tal age, like Malala Yousafzai, and it be­came a bet­ter mo­ment to tell this story.”

Gavron adds the more she and her col­leagues were shocked by the de­tails of the story — the vi­o­lence, per­sis­tence and con­se­quences — the more they learned, and re­alised it “lent it­self to cin­ema be­cause it had this epic qual­ity”: “We’ve only told one as­pect of it and there are so many other sto­ries to tell.”

re­views Suf­fragette — Page 10

Carey Mul­li­gan in

Suf­fragette

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