Digging into the press notes for Suffragette feels a lot like cozying up to a graduate dissertation. The film, which opens Friday at the Cedar Lee, Valley View and Crocker Park, tells the story of a group of women battling for suffrage in Great Britain during the early 20th century. And director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan say they spent six years working on the project.
"We were grappling with the historical authenticity of the piece," says Morgan, at a roundtable interview in New York City in October. "Should we do the biopic version or something else? I think the desire was to find a prism through which to look at this extraordinary 18 months of history."
Those 18 months span a period of increased involvement from women across classes in Great Britain, when their tactics transitioned from peaceful protest to militant activism. And the prism that Morgan and Gavron settled on was the perspective of the working women who became so vital to the cause. They were women who had the most to lose.
"These women made huge sacrifices," says Morgan, who garnered much of her information from historic testimonials that Gavron discovered. "Many of them were incarcerated and force fed. For the upper-middle class women, they didn't have the conflict of going back afterwards and losing their jobs. But for the working-class women, their lives had really fallen apart. Their jobs weren't waiting for them. No one had taken care of their children. These were the foot soldiers: they had so much to lose in so many ways, and yet what the vote would mean to them was so radical."
To portray the movie's central figure, a fictional composite named Maude Watts, Gavron and Morgan managed to cast Carey Mulligan.
"We'd wanted Carey for a long time," says Gavron, "She's an actor who can inhabit a role so fully, so truthfully. I went to lunch with her and after 15 minutes, she said she wanted to do it."
They built the cast around her, enlisting Helena Bonham-Carter (whose great-grandfather is Lord Herbert Asquith, former prime minister and chief antagonist of the suffrage movement), Brendan Gleeson and Meryl Streep.
Streep, however, who plays the movement's leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, is only on screen for one scene, a rousing speech given to her disciples before she slips off into the night to evade arrest. Gavron concedes that most filmmakers who get Meryl Streep generally like to use her gifts as extensively as they can.
"But we weren't telling [Pankhurst's] story," Morgan says. "We were telling the story of the working women. But to have Meryl, who has always been such an incredible advocate for women in the industry, was so wonderful. For us, it was about using her charisma and her beam of light to bring out of the shadows women that haven't been written about before. In a way, it took an iconic actress to play an iconic part."
Morgan says that one of the most striking (and unusual) elements on set was seeing this group of four or five leading, substantial female actors in conversation with one another.
"You almost never see more than one or two," says Morgan, "and to see them all talking and sharing — this eclectic group — that became more important than the film itself."
Gavron hopes that Suffragette, by being so specific — "it's about a small group of women during one year in a tiny corner of London," — will resonate universally.
"We want it to prompt discourse around global inequality," Gavron says, "discourse across ages and cultures and genders. We talked about this film as a kickass film, and if it can prompt further discourse, we'd be hugely grateful."
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