A ‘Suffragette' for the 21st Century

It's a story set more than a hundred years ago, yet its message echoes with a modern-day resonance.

"Suffragette" (in theaters Friday) follows members of the British suffrage movement in the early 20th century as they fight for women's rights. Most importantly the right to vote. 

Director Sarah Gavron ("Brick Lane") and screenwriter Abi Morgan ("The Iron Lady") focus the story on Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a working class mother who scrapes by in London's harsh East End thanks to her job in a local laundry. It's not the upper class image of suffrage most audiences know via characters such as Mrs. Banks in "Mary Poppins," but an honest–often harrowing–look at the struggle from the other side of the economic divide of the time. 

"There were so many different ways you could have gone with this film, so many different ways to do this, and it was a real labor of love to find our story," explains Morgan, who sat down alongside Gavron to discuss "Suffragette" following a recent screening of the movie at the Hamptons International Film Festival. "The more research we did and the more we found out about the working women of that time was really exciting, and though it was a 1912 woman it was a 21st century story. And that's when it started to resonate beyond just the movement itself."

Both director and screenwriter were shocked at how little of the information and backstory regarding the movement had been showcased for modern audiences. "There was so much material," Gavron says of the options they faced in choosing a protagonist for the film. "We could have done the biopic and we could have done the story of the women in the regions," she adds. Ultimately they centered on the fictional character of Watts, a composite of women at the time who they place alongside real-life characters at one of the most crucial and bloody moments in the movement's history. 

Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst in "Suffragette."

Gavron and Morgan spent years searching through official documents, photographs and first-person accounts of the era in order to imbue the film with a factual honesty. What they discovered was a brutal battle in which women faced cruel and sadistic treatment at the hands of law enforcers. 

"It was the lengths to which the women went and the brutality that they faced I thought was the most shocking," Gavron says. "I hadn't known that police had attacked the women on a number of occasions and very specifically the famous occasion of Black Friday [Nov. 18, 1910] where the government ordered the police to intimidate them. They went in and twisted their breasts and threw them to the ground and repeatedly kicked them." Black Friday was the first documented use of police force against suffragettes and inspired the movement to step up their campaign of civil disobedience.  

"The fact that the women were prepared to risk so much, sacrifice so much – go to prison, hunger strike, being force fed repeatedly. Just understanding what drove the women to that point was so fascinating," Gavron adds. "Who could we imagine in our contemporary circles who could do that, endure that for a cause."

To honor the hardships of those who paved the way, Gavron strived to achieve verisimilitude in both the look and narrative of the film. "The world was so real and we wanted it to feel connected to the audience... to really experience what it was like for a woman in 1912 working in that laundry, walking down those streets. And so that permeated the way we did the film, the way we set it up in every way. We went as much as possible for real locations, we tried to get 360 degree locations so that we could shoot anywhere and gave the actors a lot of freedom. The actors wore very little makeup and we went for performances that we felt were stripped down and real, just to locate you in that world."

After much petitioning, "Suffragette" received permission to shoot in London's Houses of Parliament, becoming the first film to ever shoot in that location. Using 300 supporting artists and horses, the production staged an anti-government riot on the very ground where the actual event took place. "The very place that barred women for centuries," Gavron says.

"Suffragette" director Sarah Gavron and cast on location at London's Houses of Parliament.

And like the subject matter, the movie itself has attracted controversy with a  Twitter brouhaha over slogan T-shirts worn by Mulligan and costar Meryl Streep (who plays movement leader Emmeline Pankhurst), as well as a peaceful protest staged by direct action feminist group Sisters Uncut that brought the film's London premiere to a standstill.

The latter event, to protest cuts made to domestic abuse services, is something both director and screenwriter applauded. "It is a film about protest and it was oddly appropriate and right and fitting that at the premiere we had groups protesting about issues that are very current for women today and there they were using suffragette style techniques," says Gavron. Morgan adds it was "just marvelously staged" and incredibly important, not only for the cause for which they were trying to bring awareness to, but also how it speaks to the ideas showcased in the film.

"The very ethos of the film is about freedom of speech, freedom to be who you want to be," Morgan explains. "And so the discourse that is happening around this film is so vital and important on every level, and we fundamentally hope that what an audience takes away is that it is a film that's really meant to invoke and inspire a generation globally to fight for equality for all women all over the world."

"Suffragette" opens nationally in theaters on Oct. 23. 

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