Nicholas Friedman | Editor-In-Chief
In a small conference room at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City Sunday afternoon, director Sarah Gavron discussed the nearly decade-long process of making Suffragette, a film detailing a portion of the women’s rights movement in early 20th Century England.
“I didn’t learn about [suffragettes] at all in school and what we did learn was marginalized,” she said.
Starring Carrie Mulligan (Drive, The Great Gastby), Helena Bonham Carter (Fight Club, Alice in Wonderland), Brendan Gleeson (the Harry Potter series) and sort of Meryl Streep, (Into the Woods, The Iron Lady) the film is an exploration of what happens when a country is conditioned to demean an entire sect of people. In this case, nearly half its population.
“I colored in a sheet when I was 13 and I spent a long time on the hat,” the film’s writer Abi Morgan said on her exposure to women’s suffrage in school. “That’s about it.”
The film is a period piece told to the best of Gavron’s ability, she said. Stark, almost grainy scenes bring the world to life, and offer a place of significant trauma and ultimate refuge for the main character of Maude Watts, played by Mulligan.
Watts is brought into the suffrage movement after years of work at a laundry, where she was abused verbally and seemingly physically by its owner. Coworkers and friends who meet weekly at a pharmacy owned by Edith Ellyn (Bonham-Carter) and her husband take her in.
From there, Watts deals with the distrust of her husband and the loss of her child as she pushes forward for women’s rights. She starts attending protests and becomes more aware of the need for a woman’s vote.
One scene takes place in the British Houses of Parliament, where Watts testifies on behalf of her organization. The scene is the first of its kind, as it was actually filmed on scene with the permission of members of Parliament.
Streep plays Emmeline Pankhurst, who appears in short bursts throughout the film, mostly in newspaper clippings and photos on the walls. Pankhurst, the matriarch of the women’s suffrage movement in the film, works to rally her troops and make plans in secret.
At the conference on Sunday, Helen Pankhurst, Emmeline’s granddaughter, discussed the influence her grandmother had on her life, and touched briefly on the recent social media outrage for a T-shirt from the film branded with the words, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.”
[blockquote author=””]“If Emmeline knew her words would be interpreted this way, she’d be shocked,” she said. “Her father was an abolitionist.”[/blockquote]
Despite the bit of bad press for the film, it hasn’t hindered its impact. There was a demonstration at the film’s England premiere by Sisters Uncut, a feminist activist group based in the U.K. focused on domestic violence.
When the film comes to a climax, the audience is made aware that even though women won the right to vote some years later (1918 for female householders over 30 and 1928 for all women over 21), the fight isn’t over for equal rights, and it may never be.
The credits roll with a solemn tone, a stark contrast from the booming, suspenseful score throughout the film. A list of countries with access to women’s voting rights comes across the screen in chronological order, with 2015 being the most recent year.
“This was not a project about money. It’s never been about money.” Gavron said. “We have to get people of all backgrounds to start making films like this.”
Suffragette is in theaters October 23.