Demanding to be Heard: Sarah Gavron’s ‘Suffragette’ dramatizes British women’s fight for the vote

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Debut filmmakers and veterans alike often admit to years spent bringing a desired project to fruition, and Sarah Gavron is no exception. Before directing Suffragette, her latest movie, she made four shorts, as well as three features: This Little Life (2003), a television drama about a couple and their premature baby; Brick Lane (2007), which depicts 20 years in the life of an Indian immigrant in London, and Village at the End of the World (2012), a documentary set in Greenland. “I have wanted to make a movie about suffragettes for ten years,” the British director confesses. Suffragette, set in London in 1912, will be released by Focus Features on Oct. 23.

Six years ago, Gavron met with producer Faye Ward and screenwriter Abi Morgan (Shame). “We were all very enthusiastic, and even then spoke about not making the film from the point of view of Emmeline Pankhurst—although a biopic is long overdue.” Pankhurst, a leading British suffragette, is portrayed by Meryl Streep in a cameo role. Gavron’s hero in Suffragette is Maud (Carey Mulligan of An Education and Shame), a laundress who earns far less than her husband does, despite having a similar position at the same company.

As a working mother, Maud has little time to dwell on inequities at the laundry or at home, until several events unfold in quick succession, Gavron deftly sketching the circumstances that finally lead her protagonist to question her existence. First, Maud befriends Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), a co-worker, and discovers she is a suffragette. Then, in a visit to Edith (Helena Bonham Carter), a pharmacist who treats her son’s recurring cough, Maud learns that she is also active in the movement to win voting rights for women. Next, Maud witnesses an attempted rape and is reminded of her own sexual abuse at the hands of the same manager. Later in the film, her resolve to join the movement is strengthened by her husband’s growing rancor, and by a police inspector (Brendan Gleeson) who, after arresting her, presses her to spy on her fellow suffragettes.

In an August interview at the Bowery Hotel in New York City, Gavron explains that she and Morgan began their research shortly after the meeting with Ward. “It took a long time to find the story of Maud,” she says. “We read unpublished diaries and memoirs to get these vivid accounts of working women.” It was the research, Gavron recalls, that inspired them. “Working-class women had more to lose,” the director explains. “Their communities were far more disapproving than those of the middle and upper-class women.” Solidarity nevertheless erased many of the class divisions. “We wanted to show these different energies, different ages and different types working together, because that’s what the movement did,” Gavron says.

The director, who is in her mid-40s, is a graduate of the U.K.’s National Film and Television School, and is a native Londoner. Gavron is also a wife and a working mother. Asked about the suffragettes’ violent clashes with police, and the surveillance depicted in the film, Gavron replies that she and Morgan discovered records of these activities at the National Archives. “The radicalism of the suffragettes was rather surprising, bombing post boxes and all, but more shocking was the police brutality against them.” Research revealed undercover photos the police had taken of the suffragettes. “There were a number of Irish on the force, like Gleeson’s character,” Gavron explains, “and many of them had fought the Fenians. The surveillance methods they used in Ireland were adapted for use with the suffragettes.” (The Fenians’ cause was Irish independence. They believed in armed resistance and, like the suffragettes, they threatened Britain’s financial stability and its social order.)

While at college, Gavron won a place in a directing class taught by Stephen Frears (Dirty, Pretty Things), a director she points to as one of her early influences, along with Mike Leigh (Mr. Turner) and Terence Davies (The Deep Blue Sea). “Then I saw the work of Jane Campion, Angel at My Table,” Gavron recalls, “and that moved me. I saw that she was a woman with a real perspective. And Mira Nair made me realize that a woman can reach people across the world.”

Gavron expresses dismay at the dearth of women filmmakers in the U.K. “The statistics are really bleak,” she says, “four to twelve percent, but mostly four percent. What is heartening, though, is that for the first time in my career, it is part of the conversation. Everyone is talking about it.”

A few years ago, in an on-camera interview, Gavron introduced one of her editors on Village at the End of the World, Russell Crockett, as her “co-filmmaker.” The documentary is set in a declining peninsula town with a population of 59. “The editing process on that film was difficult because we set out to find a story,” she says. “Editing was akin to the scriptwriting process. We were really pulling out characters and narratives and finding juxtapositions.” For Suffragette, Gavron chose Oscar-nominee Barney Pilling (The Grand Budapest Hotel), whose editing of the film is excellent, especially in scenes where there are violent confrontations.

Asked if her experience on the documentary led her to become more actively engaged in Suffragette’s picture edit, Gavron replies: “It was useful to have gone through the experience of documentary because we shot Suffragette in a slightly documentary way, so we had a lot of material in the edit. We ran two cameras, and the actors had a lot of freedom of movement.” Gavron recalls the nature of her collaboration with Pilling as a search for authenticity. “For us, it was all about finding the truth,” she recalls. “Do we believe this moment? How do we make it the most realistic?” Realism is what informed the production design as well, by Alice Normington (Proof). “I wanted a 360-degree set so that we would be able to shoot in all directions,” Gavron explains.

The filmmaker calls her star, Carey Mulligan, “a gift.” At 30, Mulligan has already established herself as a screen and stage actress here and in Britain; this year she was nominated for a Tony for Skylight, and in 2009 she won a BAFTA Award for An Education. “What was really striking about working with Carey is that she is very diligent,” Gavron explains. “She immersed herself in the period. In her trailer, she had tacked up quotes all around from working women and suffragettes.” As for directing her, Gavron says Mulligan “had a great barometer” for gauging her performance. “She is all about finding the moment,” the filmmaker observes, “getting to the truth of it and not making it feel like acting.”

At the beginning of our interview, Gavron admitted that her high-school history classes did not include any mention of the British suffragist movement. Ironically, she attended Camden School for Girls, founded by Frances Mary Buss, an advocate for girls’ education and a suffragette. One member of the Suffragette cast had no need for history lessons. Helena Bonham Carter is the great-granddaughter of Lord Herbert Asquith, who was prime minister in 1912. He is vilified in the film for opposing women’s suffrage. “We actually had two descendants of the same generation and their ancestors were enemies,” Gavron says. “Helen Pankhurst served as a consultant for Emmeline Pankhurst, her great-grandmother. There was something amazing about having she and Helena there.”

Suffragette will open the London Film Festival in October. Only three other female directors have shared that honor with Gavron in the festival’s 58-year history.