2015 has been declared ‘The Year of the Strong Woman’ at the London Film Festival.
With 46 films by women directors and some of the best creative talent on show, it’s only appropriate that the opening film is about the movement for women’s voting rights in England.
A chapter of little-known British history brought to the screen by a British woman, Sara Gavron’s ‘Suffragette’ is a compelling and deeply stirring piece of cinema.
Tracing the early feminist movement when women fought for the right to vote, the film follows Maud (Carey Mulligan) a young laundress who is gradually initiated into the movement.
She is the archetypal everywoman, a working girl from East End with a loving husband (Ben Whishaw) and child.
However, her world is upended when she defends the rights of her co-worker or protects a young girl from the factory owner’s sexual abuse.
Maud joins new friends in the Sufragette meetings and one evening in a secret location, the iconic Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) appears to make an inspiring speech for the girls.
Further empowered, Maud joins the ranks and is first hounded by government security and then jailed. Her idyllic world crumbles as her husband throws her out and her child is put up for adoption.
The British suffragettes had to employ violent and non-violent means as part of their civil disobedience movement.
After years of lobbying for the women’s vote and facing government betrayal at every turn, the Suffragettes strike the warpath.
They stone window dressings, bomb post boxes and cut electric cables. They even bomb a minister’s country home. The movement is splintered at this time by the debate over the use of violent and non-violent means of civil protest.
Maud joins her friend to reach the King at the Derby races.
The event ends tragically when Emily Davison (Natalie Press) throws herself in front of George V’s horse.
Historically this incident at the 1913 Epsom Derby generated images and headlines that shocked the nation, a staged suicide that no one was really prepared for.
The film ends with documentary footage of Davison’s funeral. That women’s rights is a continued struggle is borne out by a list of dates from countries around the world.
At the turn of the twentieth century, British laws did not offer much dignity or protection for women.
Women had no right over their children or property after marriage, working women were exploited and paid much less than men, there was no protection against exploitation, sickening abuse, pregnancy and illness.
Girls went to the laundry factory as early as twelve, they could even get married at that age.
At the heart of the film is an ordinary working girl who grows aware of the injustice around her and then joins a movement to fight it.
Carey Mulligan lives the role in its many shades, playing out the many nuances of a deprived mother, rejected wife and homeless woman who becomes a foot soldier for the Suffragettes and gets enmeshed in the larger politics of the time.
With focused energy she is at once frail, convinced, empowered.
Mulligan is flanked by powerful portrayals by Helena Bonham Carter as Edith Ellyn and a single, iconised appearance by Meryl Streep.
In a press meet at the Lanesborough, Meryl Streep endorsed the narrative of the ordinary woman with whom today’s audience can connect rather than look at the story as a thing from the past.
“These women were written out of history and the important thing about film is that you can take a closer look at a lesser known story in great detail”, the Oscar-winner said.
Director Sara Gavron, actor Carey Mulligan and writer Aby Morgan all confessed they had never been taught this chapter of history in schools.
Indeed the prison records relating to the time were released only in 2003 which made the construction of the story a bit of a detective game and a wonderful amalgamation of fact and fiction.
Mulligan, making an appearance three weeks after her first child was born, connected the empowerment and bonding in the film to the need for education and empowerment in todays’ world.
“It feels like a film about today. I always felt its resonance is about where we are now, and its achievement is to mark what these women did. We still live in a sexist society, but the film allows us to see the journey and where we are today.”
For director Sara Gavron, ‘Suffragette’ has been a ten-year journey.
I had previously worked with her on ‘Brick Lane’ and know her as a determined and conscientious filmmaker.
Gavron worked with writer Abi Morgan (who also co-wrote ‘Brick Lane’) for six years on the story which was enabled by many other women, including Fay Ward and Alison Owen from Rubu Films and an early green light from Tess Ross at Channel 4.
A photo shoot of the crew wearing t-shirts with the line “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” sparked off controversy as African-American women took offence suggesting the contribution of black or coloured women was being ignored.
While it is true that the women’s movement in America had huge contributions from women in colour, it would be out of context to place that argument in this section of British suffragette history.
Hence the choice to not make a film on Mrs. Pankhurst but on Everywoman, a frail laundress who finds power, makes the narrative more credible.
‘Suffragette’ is a well-researched piece of history and a grippingly executed film by an ensemble of women.
Claire Stewart, Director of the London Film Festival, remarked about how appropriate it was to offer the opening platform to this film, as a gesture to amend the gender inequality in the film industry itself.
Crossing cultures and histories, the silent grit of the revolutionaries evoke the stoic stance of a Gandhi or Mandela.
It is a journey not far from the ones we witness today, certainly close to Malala Yousufzai, the subject of another film during the Festival.