I was invited to a private sneak peek of the movie, Suffragette. On the invitation was a request to not write about it until it had premiered which it did last night at the Telluride Film Festival. The British press had been writing about it and now the US press is at liberty to as well. It is a marketing thing about film festivals and who gets to print first. I find it all commercially understandable but not my concern at all. My concern was, is and will always be -- historical accuracy. For the rest of time certain fictionalized movies are shown in classrooms as if they are a history lesson and thus the myths are spun and truth is unseated: my personal annoyance. With that said, I went to this preview with a chip on my shoulder or, in my mind, prepared to hold feet to the fire.
My host had asked me to not be rude if the film veers entirely off track. She thought I might confront the director and screenwriter who were offering a Q&A after. Fortunately the opening frame set the story in 1912 which means that Alice Paul has left England for America and no matter what happens I will not have to leap to the front of the room and set them straight on Miss Paul. It was a secret relief.
Oddly the opening scene is Maud Watts, played by Carrie Mulligan, staring into a shop window, as was the opening scene in Iron Jawed Angels. That set me on high alert. Maud is a laundry worker, wife and mother. She has suffered burns, long hours and sexual assault. She has aged out of being assaulted and now the foreman has a younger conquest. Fundamentally she lives like most women; trying to get through the day with the least amount of friction, falling into bed from exhaustion and, tomorrow, starting all over again. It isn’t that she doesn’t have a voice. It is that her voice has been silenced to such a point that Maud herself accepts she is unable to speak.
Mrs. Pankhurst, the genius strategist, beloved leader and hunted change-maker gave thousands of women the means to find their voice. She trusted that these exhausted women knew precisely what was going on, they simply had to find the means and opportunity to express it. Marches, songs, publicly wearing the movement’s colors, selling movement papers on street corners and being visible pierced society’s convention. They saw one another, heard one another and could be silent no more.
The film Suffragette features two women’s delicately structured evolution into full active, sometimes shocking, militancy. The laundry worker and a pharmacist carry on in the neighborhoods of London you might recognize from Calling The Midwife. Nappies on the clothesline crisscross the streets, hats on every head, children sitting in prams unattended, the streets of the workers giving it their all to simply carry on.
The film is intimate, heartbreaking, every woman’s story. Patriarchy is at its full roar and women are crashing through like Boudicca with her daughters riding against the Romans. Once awake they cannot turn away escalating violence all the way to the death. All for that precious vote. That vote doled out in increments and still not used to its full potential.
The vagueness about the movie in this writing is intentional for two reasons; not wanting give away any surprises and to address what is more to my preferred question -- was it a blathering fairy tale forever diminishing a brave noble story of our lineage as women.
My real jubilation happened in the Q&A with Sarah Gavron, the director and Abi Morgan, the screenwriter. The first question from the audience was what was their process in authenticating the story. Gavron said that, unlike American bio-dramas, the British are very serious about accuracy. (I did want to jump up with that!) She said it took nine years and each time something more was discovered, they rewrote and, sometimes, re-shot. Morgan said they went through 43 rewrites. In the course of six years they had consulted with Dr. Helen Pankhurst, granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst and Katherine Tupper, great granddaughter of Emily Davison. They had access to the British Museum and Parliament archives They read memoirs by the laundry workers. Carrie Mulligan read handwritten diaries of women who led lives like the one she played. The role of Edith Ellyn, played by Helena Bottom Carter, was based on the real woman, Olive Schreiner who had wanted to be a doctor but could not afford the training.
For me, it was important that Sarah Gavron and Abi Morgan did not take the easy road and draw un-provable conclusions in the film about the death of Emily Wilding Davison. They acknowledged that Emily’s death is and will always be unsettled business; was she a martyr or on the edge of suicide? They described they were given access to her tiny purse and inside was a return ticket, possibly alluding that she did not mean to be killed. Watching films, listening to scholars and relatives it seems it will always be a great conversation. Even a recent television recreation puts forth a digital supposition that she only wanted to place a VOTES FOR WOMEN sash on the King’s horse. Dr. Diane Atkinson, author of the book, Suffragette says, “Don’t fall for this return ticket business. It is a red herring. I am very sure she was ready to give her life.” The mystery is a never ending conversation.
And we need all the bait for conversations we can find. As Gavron said, “We need to resurrect women from history.” Indeed we do. Thank you Sarah Gavron and Abi Morgan. Well done.