‘Suffragette’ director combines two film genres

Natalie Press and Carey Mulligan in "Suffragette." (Photo credit: Focus Features)

Natalie Press and Carey Mulligan in “Suffragette.” (Photo credit: Focus Features)

By Rick Bentley
The Fresno Bee

Director Sarah Gavron got to combine her two favorite film genres — documentaries and fiction — in “Suffragette.”

The story of the battle by British women to get the right to vote in the early 20th century casts a well-researched light on the social issues that continue today. But the director also was able to deliver this history lesson in a fictionalized form as seen through the eyes of an average woman, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), who becomes a foot soldier in the political and social battle.

“This was a great marriage of the two worlds,” Gafron says. “There are all the elements that I enjoy when making a fictional story that includes factual material that make the work jarring and real.

“I think the form of the filmmaking must suit the content. There are certain stories where a documentary tells a story better. And there are times when fiction is the perfect vehicle. Fiction allows you to put the viewer in the shoes of the women in 1912.”

Gavron has wanted to do a movie about the suffragette movement in Britain for 10 years. That gave her and writer Abi Morgan time to amass a mountain of research material.

One thing they discovered was that while the events in the film unfolded a century ago, the themes are just as important today. That point is emphasized at the end of the movie with a long list of countries and when they allowed women to vote. Some have been in recent years.

Gavron points out that the film also looks at other serious issues of the time that have not changed, including inequality in pay for women, sexual harassment in the workplace, abuse at home and covert government surveillance.

“Suffragette” was a test for Gavron as the British filmmaker had made only a handful of films, most notably the 2007 release “Brick Lane.” This time out, not only did she have the normal duties of directing, but she also had to wrangle all of the challenges of doing a period film.

“It was a steep learning curve, re-creating London of that period because it only exists today in small pockets,” Gavron says. “I spent a lot of time referencing other films about the era, learning how to work with stunt men and handling the visual effects team.”

One thing that made the job easier was casting Mulligan as her central character. Gavron had been thinking of Mulligan for the role since she started putting the project together.

Mulligan gave Gavron an actress who can have a modern look or come across as timeless.

“She’s so truthful. She can convey an interior light in an extraordinary way. When I was filming her, I could see a lot going on. When I looked at the work, I could see there was even more going on through these tiny emotional shifts,” Gavron says.

The director also worked with Meryl Streep, who she cast as suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst. Gavron admits she felt at the beginning that directing an actor of Streep’s caliber would be daunting. But Streep put her at ease with her straight forward way of working and the way she supported the production.

“She’s in only one sequence, but she stayed an extra night so that she could help us with a scene where her character is off screen. She was so generous and went above and beyond what was expected of her,” Gavron says.

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