“Suffragette” was a favorite selection at the Telluride Film Festival. It tells a powerful story of women driven to desperation to have their voices heard. Before the screening director Sarah Gavron (“Brick Lane”) said she had worked 6 years to get the film made. Meryl Streep who again portrays an historical figure, suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, was also at Telluride. Gavron said she needed an iconic figure to play the iconic Pankhurst.
In 1912, Maud (Carey Mulligan, “Far From the Madding Crowd”) is working at a grueling job in a laundry with the unwanted attention of her superior. When making a delivery, she looks with sadness at the luxuries behind shop windows. She is shocked to see women breaking windows with stones and shouting “Votes for Women!.” One of her co-workers, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), is among these suffragettes.
Violet introduces Maud to others in the suffrage movement including Edith (Helena Bonham Carter, “The King’s Speech”) who runs a pharmacy. The women demand the vote because they have no say in their lives. Like many women, Maud works longer hours than men for less pay. And laws always favored men over women. Maud joins the suffragettes, believing drastic change is the only way to improve her life. The women have turned to violence against property to have their voices noticed, they want “deeds not words”, believing “war is the only language men listen to.”
Gavron has staged the film with many vivid historical details. The screenplay by Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”) includes a variety of well-defined characters of different social classes. Mulligan is superb, showing Maud’s growing anger and determination. She leads a strong ensemble. In a very stirring scene, Streep as Pankhurst gives inspiration to a crowd of suffragettes meeting clandestinely. The women risk being battered and arrested by police, and brutal force-feeding in prison.
Brendan Gleeson (“Calvary”) is formidable as a police official attempting hidden surveillance of the women. The authorities treat the suffragettes with superiority and entitlement. Maud’s husband (Ben Whishaw, James Bond’s latest Q) becomes increasingly unsympathetic as her behavior becomes public, leading to a wrenching sequence.
“Suffragette” becomes very moving and emotionally intense as the women determinedly continue their struggle for change.
After the screening which received a standing ovation, Meryl Streep said that today, “the rights of women haven’t stopped being suppressed”. She added ”Great leaders” are needed “to move things along” as the fact that “women work longer” hours than men “for less” money has not changed. She added that she was “proud to be associated any way” with “Suffragette”.
She said she saw the impact of women not voting in her family. Streep thought there was “no smarted person” than her grandmother, the mother of 3, who would drag her husband off the golf course. But she couldn’t even run for dog catcher. She could only be on the school board.
Streep that that doing research for the film, she surprised to learn that the US counterparts to the British suffragettes were “well-behaved in comparison, that’s not how it usually comes out.”
Director Sarah Gavron said that ”Suffragette” had the first film crew to shoot in Parliament for a pivotal scene. An unlike the hostility shown by politicians in the film, she said that Prime Minister David “Cameron and his kids visited us.” Gavron added that ironically, Helena Bonham Carter who plays a prominent suffragette in the film is the great-granddaughter of H. H. Asquith, Prime Minister who “fought to keep women from voting.”
Gavron said the suffragettes faced continual “brutality from the state”. They would be released to their families, then put back in prison. Emily Davison, a pivotal figure in the movement who appears in the film, was force fed 49 times.
Streep said that one way to increase the female voice in the film industry is the awarding of grants to screenwriters over 40. She wondered why just “1% of the top 100 directors are women.” She added that “who directs, defines the film.”
Sarah Gavron and Meryl Streep later appeared at an outdoor panel at Telluride with representatives of other films. Gavron said the history of the suffragettes is untold and not part of school history lessons. She believes “Suffragette” offers a “perspective not seen before”. She said the filmmakers got a handle on the screenplay by making Maud the central character to give the film a working class perspective. Originally the character was a servant in the home of an aristocrat played by Romola Garai.
Streep said that she has “more license” and “creativity” when playing fictional characters than historical figures like Emmeline Pankhurst. She discovered that Mrs. Pankhurst, who would be arrested if caught by British authorities, traveled to America to raise funds. She was introduced in Hartford by the mother of Katharine Hepburn who was active in the US suffragist movement.
Streep described the British suffragettes as “strategically violent” to affect change. She said that in 1913, women could be in a legal marriage at age 12. She added that Margaret Thatcher, whom she received an Oscar for portraying in “The Iron Lady”, “couldn’t get a credit card in 1980 without her husband’s signature.”
“Suffragette” was described by Streep as a “modern story, really.” “The vote can still change lives”, she said, adding that by not voting we “waste it” if we “don’t realize we can still change” things with our vote.