A film called Suffragette is being filmed in London at the moment. It’s due for release January 2015. It’s starring Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham-Carter, and co-starring Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Romola Gara, Anne-Marie Duff and Samuel West.
Helena Bonham-Carter is ironically the great grand-daughter of Herbert Asquith, who was Prime Minister during most of the Suffragette years, and who almost single- handedly at times delayed the vote for women. During this period only 4 of his 19 strong cabinet were openly opposed to women getting the vote. A fifth, who the Suffragettes called a “wobbler” because they never knew whether he was opposed to them or not, was Winston Churchill. The reminder of the cabinet and a large number of Liberal MP’s (who had a huge majority in Parliament for much of the era) believed women should get the vote in some form or another.
Suffragette is the first feature film ever to be allowed inside the Houses of Parliament to film scenes. I suspect Ms Bonham-Carter’s great grand-father is spinning in his grave!
Meryl Streep plays Mrs Pankhurst. At least part of the film is set in 1913 (see below re the Suffragette Derby of that year) when Mrs P was a decade younger than Ms Streep, but the large number of imprisonments and hunger strikes, and the general stress of heading the Suffragette movement, had taken their toll on the unwell Mrs Pankhurst so by 1913 she did look a decade older than her age. She was genuinely feared by the government and as a result they never false-fed her, unlike all the other poor women they tortured, because they were fearful of what might happen if she died in prison a martyr.
But Mrs Pankhurst isn’t the main character in the film. Carey Mulligan is playing the lead. Her character’s name is Maud. One scene apparently sees her at Epsom when Emily Davison famously attempted to stuff her Votes for Women scarf into the bridle of the king’s horse as it rounded Tattenham Corner during what became known as the 1913 “Suffragette” Derby. One wonders whether Maud is based on Mary Richardson, who accompanied Emily to the Derby and ended up locked in the porter’s room at Epsom Downs railway station for her own protection from a baying anti-Suffragette mob.
I include Emily’s fateful assault on the Derby, and Mary running for her life from a mob afterwards, as scenes in my novel Suffragette Autumn Women’s Spring.
Mary later became known as “Slasher” Richardson, after she slashed the Rokeby Venus by Velazquez at the National Gallery with a meat cleaver. Apparently Maud faints at the Derby when she sees Emily struck down by the horse but Mary was certainly made of sterner stuff. And on such a perilous mission as attacking the Derby, she also certainly would not have been wearing the sort of tight corsetry which caused women to faint.
Natalie Press is playing a character called Emily, which one assumes is Emily Davison. Given how far down the credits Natalie is, one assumes Emily is not in the film terribly long, which is a great shame as she was a fascinating woman.
One of the three companies making the film is Pathe, which already has a connection with the Suffragettes. It is a very poor quality fuzzy Pathe News film of the Suffragette Derby that is usually shown whenever Emily Davison is featured in a documentary or whatever. But there’s actually a much better quality film that I’ve seen, which was also shot from a better angle, that shows Emily’s amazingly brave walk out into the horses that tragic day. It’s a Gaumont film. It never seems to be shown on TV – perhaps it’s a copyright issue or something.
The costume design looks good from the pictures I’ve seen. One worry is that the make-up looks very 21st century. Perhaps they’d all popped into Mr Selfridge’s new perfume department (Lily of the Valley now available for 1/6d!) and asked for some “under the counter” cosmetics!
By the way, in March 1912 when 260 Suffragettes journeyed up to the West End in removals vans (to avoid detection by the police) before jumping out and smashing pretty much every ground floor shop window in Oxford Street and surrounds, Selfridges was left alone. It really did have a Suffragette display window, as in the TV series. It was good business. Many Suffragettes refused to shop in a store if it didn’t stock things in the purple, white and green colours of the Suffragettes, and advertise in The Suffragette newspaper.