Women in the lead
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