This piece discusses the plot of “Suffragette.”
“Suffragette,” Sarah Gavron’s chronicle of the British women’s suffrage movement, arrives in theaters Friday, just in time for Halloween. Though it’s not precisely the traditional horror fare of the season, the stakes are high in “Suffragette,” which looks at the moment when the Women’s Social and Political Union turned to bombings and brick-throwing after 40 years of peaceful protest, and the British government began to take extreme measures to try to break the movement through the experiences of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a laundress who joins the movement at great personal cost.
For Gavron, the film’s focus on working-class women grew out of 10 years of historical research into the lives of women like Women’s Social and Political Union leader and mill worker Annie Kenney, seamstress and socialist Hannah Mitchell, who wrote the memoir “The Hard Way Up,” and Constance Lytton, who disguised herself after her first incarceration to demonstrate the differences between how wealthy and working-class women were treated in prison.
“We could have told the story of the Pankhursts [Meryl Streep plays matriarch Emmeline Pankhurst in a small role], and there’s a compelling story there,” she explained. But “when we read these accounts of these working women . . . their voices sounded so contemporary, and they were dealing with issues that are 21st-century issues globally, like the pay gap, sexual abuse, custodial rights. . . . You don’t normally get the stories of those women, they’re marginalized by history.”
“Suffragette” doesn’t shy from the very different experiences women of different class backgrounds had once they became radicalized. “The working women had more to lose. It was much more shameful in those communities, going to prison,” Gavron says. And in her film, Maud Watts loses her son after her husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), throws her out of the house and then, finding himself unable to cope with parenting, gives their child up for adoption. She loses her job when she attacks the employer who sexually harassed her for years, and she ends up homeless.
But, as Gavron points out, more privileged women could find themselves humiliated as well. In one scene in “Suffragette,” the upper-class Alice Haughton (Romola Garai) begs her husband, Benedict (Samuel West), to bail her comrades out of prison, rather than simply secure her release. But though Alice reminds Benedict that the money to pay the bail was hers before they were married, he refuses her, making a public point of her powerlessness. “They had no control in their own way, and I think that’s what brought the women together,” Gavron muses. “Each in their different spheres, even privileged women were very trapped in their own way.”
Dramatizing some of the uglier elements of the government’s repressive campaign against suffrage activists was a directorial challenge. In one sequence that defies the polite conventions of period dramas, Maud is force-fed after launching a hunger strike, and Gavron doesn’t shy away from what it actually looks like to force someone’s jaws open and to shove tubing all the way down their throat to their stomach. The sound of Maud’s gagging follows us into the hallway even after the camera moves away from the sight of her being held down for the procedure.
“Out of all the research, the thing I was almost most shocked by was the force-feeding. Because the fact that these women endured it, [as many as] 49 times [like] Emily Wilding Davison, and the equipment was so bad and it was so harmful to their health, and it was so painful and the consequences were so extraordinary and we really, really did want to show it,” Gavron says. “What we did was we cast stunt people to hold Carey down so she could fight with full passion rather than have to pretend.”
“And I wanted to capture that moment where the female wardens, because they had described in these accounts, these women, they sometimes saw tears glistening in [the eyes of] the female wardens who were holding them down,” she continues. “So it was a painful process for everybody. But these female wardens didn’t question what they were doing. It was important for me that we didn’t shy away from it, that we didn’t not show it. In terms of where we cut out, it was an instinctive rhythmical thing more than anything else. It was, ‘Okay, I feel it, let’s move on.’ It wasn’t about ‘Oh, that’s enough.’ It was an instinctive editing decision.”
Sound played an important role in the movie’s climax, Emily Wilding Davison’s (Natalie Press) death at the Epsom Derby, when the film shifts from the pounding of the horses’ hooves to a shocked near-silence.
“I grew up knowing that moment. I didn’t know much about the suffragettes, I knew very little, I wasn’t taught it in school, I knew the ‘Mary Poppins’ version, but I did know that,” Gavron says of building the movie toward that seminal moment in the history of the suffrage movement. “And it’s one of the moments that people do know in the U.K. Not everyone, certainly. But I thought many more of the audience would see that coming. But actually, they didn’t. So it was really interesting that people were shocked, because I thought there would be that horrible anticipation.”
If “Suffragette” gave its female stars new on-set opportunities — Gavron says Mulligan had never run on-screen in a film before — it also challenged its male stars to step back and yield space to their actress colleagues, and to play men who, in some cases, defer to their wives or the moral authority of the women they’re arguing with.
“When we were casting — you might have read this because Alison Owen, the producer, tells this story — the women all leapt at the parts, but some of the agents rang back for the men and said ‘They really, really love the script, but there’s not that much for them to do. They’re just reacting.’ And Alison kept saying ‘Well, welcome to the world of actresses for the last hundred years,'” Gavron says. “Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson [who plays a policeman charged with destroying the suffrage movement], who are the two main men, they were very committed to this project. Brendan kept on saying ‘I’ve never been on such an estrogen-filled set in my life and I’m enjoying it!’ And they really understood the overall shape of the film. I think they weren’t used to playing supporting roles, but they understood it.”