by director Sarah Gavron
I have wanted to make a film about the Suffragettes for nearly a decade. The struggle for the vote caught my imagination—not just as a woman, but as a filmmaker. I had not been taught any of the history at school, and the version I had gleaned was from Mary Poppins: sanitized accounts of singing women drinking tea and petitioning politely. There was another story—and it was that I wanted to tell.
I teamed up with Abi Morgan, the writer, and producers Alison Owen and Faye Ward, who felt as passionate as I. We held endless discussions of how to get inside the hearts and minds of these women who broke rules—and windows—in order to be heard, who committed civil disobedience, endured police violence and imprisonment, who went on hunger strikes and were repeatedly force-fed. These were women who were prepared to risk so much: many lost jobs, homes, families, and children in the battle. These were women who embraced the motto of “deeds not words”—their journey was one of action, heartbreak, camaraderie. The story seemed to grow ever more timely as we worked on it; the challenging of repression by a new generation of activists, from Malala Yousafzai to Pussy Riot, across the globe reminded us how many women are still fighting for basic human rights. Our great-grandmothers’ sacrifices seemed to fit right now.
After six years of immersing ourselves in the research, we had a script at last everyone was ready to make. Abi Morgan had focused in on 1912-1913, the year leading up to the end of the campaign in which civil disobedience was at its height and the British government at its most brutal. She told the story of one group of East London working women who join the fight for equality and move towards activism. There were so many stories of the struggle we could have told, but this felt the most connected to the world we live in today. We dreamed that Carey Mulligan would play the central role of Maud. She is an actor who can inhabit a role so truthfully. To our delight, Carey jumped at the chance and we were able to assemble around her an eclectic group of the best female actors. Anne-Marie Duff joined to play Carey’s fellow laundry worker and Suffragette Violet. Helena Bonham Carter came on board to play the leader of the network in East London. Helena had a personal connection to the struggle as the great-granddaughter of Herbert Asquith, the prime minister at the time of the film and the chief antagonist of the Suffragettes. We also had the wonderful Brendan Gleeson and Ben Whishaw, who threw themselves into the nuanced roles of the police inspector and the husband of Maud, respectively. For a sequence with the charismatic head of the movement, Emmeline Pankhurst, the small but vital role spurred us to seek an icon to play an icon. Carey suggested Meryl Streep—a great actor and a great advocate for women’s rights.
For the shoot itself, we anticipated that the biggest challenge would be the scenes at the Houses of Parliament. I was convinced we had to try for the real location, but no one had ever been given access to the Palace of Westminster in the history of filmmaking. The location manager kept my expectations low, but she did petition the authorities with great tenacity. I whooped with joy when we got a “yes!” The palace had serendipitously finally decided to open up to commercial filming and chose us as their first-ever film to get in and lens. It was an exciting few days filming there and there was a satisfying irony in the fact that we, a predominantly female cast and crew, were allowed to recreate history and stage a protest against a brutal government, in the very place that had for centuries barred women. As with much of the making of this film, it was a reminder of how far we have come and the debt we owe to these women who began to change the course of history. I hope that our film will provoke discussions that contribute to the fight against inequality wherever and whenever.