When one hears the story of the British suffragette movement, it’s hard to believe it’s never been made into a major motion picture. That changed when filmmaker Sarah Gavron reunited with the team behind her 2007 directorial debut, “Brick Lane”: writer Abi Morgan and producers Alison Owen and Faye Ward.
Says Gavron: “I’d been wanting to make a project about this for 10 years. While we were looking for something to do together, Alison and Faye started talking about suffragettes, and it was perfect.”
For many people, thinking of a British suffragette calls up images of a polite, upper-class lady — essentially, Mrs. Banks in “Mary Poppins.” Ironic, considering Owen was working on “Saving Mr. Banks” while developing this movie. “But we wanted to do something grittier, not the ‘Mary Poppins’ image,” she says.
In “Suffragette,” hitting theaters Oct. 23, the women are anything but passive, breaking windows and often serving time in prison for their protests. Carey Mulligan stars as Maud, a working-class mother who finds her marriage and job in jeopardy when she begins to fight for women’s right to vote. Though Maud is a composite of real women from the movement, she is portrayed as fighting alongside real-life figures such as Emily Wilding Davison and Emmeline Pankhurst.
“There were so many amazing women at that time,” says Morgan of the choice to focus on Maud. “Like any great movement, it’s really about the foot soldiers.”
Agrees Ward, “The moment we had her at the forefront of the film, it felt fresher, like something we hadn’t seen before.”
When it came to casting the female roles, the filmmakers found they could choose from the best of the best; Meryl Streep even signed on to appear in a small role as Pankhurst.
“You want someone who’s iconic,” says Ward. “There’s a scene where you first see her on a balcony addressing the women, and when she stepped out, the energy shifts. There was a buzz and an anticipation not just on set, but it comes through in the film.”
However, casting some of the male roles was not as easy. Reveals Owen, “It did amuse me that a few people responded saying, ‘There’s not enough for them to do, they’re just reacting to the women.’ Welcome to the world of actresses.”
Fortunately, actors like Brendan Gleeson and Ben Whishaw came on board, and Morgan’s script made a point of not demonizing the male characters. “It was really important that we have fleshed-out, conflicted characters,” says Morgan.
The movie was made on a budget of about $14 million, impressive considering it’s a period piece with crowd scenes and authentic costumes. “We had a great team and shot fast,” says Ward. “We hand-picked everyone, and everybody on set, the whole tone of the set, was what they were doing they were doing out of love.”