Suffragette isn’t a film about women’s history. So said actress and living goddess, Meryl Streep at the press conference for the film at the London Film Festival.
“There’s no ‘women’s history’, there’s just history that women are shut out of.’
Unlike some movie stars who can be disappointing in the flesh, Streep is just as goddess like as you might expect. Elegant, eloquent and charismatic she held court at the press conference even though she only has one scene, albeit a pivotal one, in the film. She plays Emmeline Pankhurst herself, inspiring laundry girl Carey Mulligan and other followers to ‘never surrender, never give up’ when they come to see her give a ferocious speech whilst effectively on the run from the police.
The film very much belongs to Mulligan who gives a performance as a down trodden working girl stripped of her dignity and even motherhood which will surely see her nominated for best actress awards across the board.
Streep of course has won 3 Oscars for her acting and been nominated for 16 more. That’s why, even though she’s barely in this film, it’s being promoted largely around her and why she commanded the attention of us all at the press conference.
She, gently but firmly, admonished those who take issue with her refusing to label herself a ‘feminist’. “As Mrs Pankhurst said, deeds not words. I let my life and the way I live it speak for me. And I am content with how I live.”
In a world where attention seeking D listers call themselves feminists to justify stripping off for magazine photo-shoots, Streep has put her energy into creating initiatives for women including one for female screenwriters over the age of 40, a much ignored group.
When asked why there are so few female ensemble films that aren’t about romance or comedy, she explained that Hollywood is all about ‘buzz’ for a film. So, she ‘went deep’ into the movie website Rotten Tomatoes to see how buzz is created for films which Hollywood then looks at to see what they should finance.
She found 168 female contributors to the site who help build this buzz. If she had found there were also 168 male contributors that would have been fair. 268 would have been unbalanced but not overly note worthy. Even 368.
Instead she found 760 male contributors.
‘The tomato meter is slanted to one taste; that of men. And I submit men and women are different . They have different tastes. But what we see on this website and others is what people accept as received wisdom. A film has buzz because men have they like it. You can apply this across the board to any issue pertaining to women’s rights. There are women in law, medicine and so on. They often make up half the schools and work forces in that field but how many are on the decision making bodies? That’s the issue we have to address and which will bring about change.”
She added that she had learnt much from researching for this film. She hadn’t known, for example that in Britain in 1912 the marriage age was 12 and women had no rights to their children, name or property once they married.
Ms Streep wryly noted that currently only Saudi Arabia and the Vatican do not give women the right to vote.
Later in the evening Ms Streep and the rest of the formidable cast put on their finest for the premiere in Leicester Square. They duly noted that a small group of female protestors had turned up to wave placards decrying cuts for domestic violence services. It was for such freedoms and rights that Mrs Pankhurst had fought?
She might have turned in her grave, however, at the sight of some of the other guests who clearly believed she had fought for their right to wear old curtains and tablecloths on the red carpet. Yes, there were some hideous outfits on display. A woman I sat next to noted that one guest had obviously come in her sleeping back. A London version of a kilt maybe – something you could roll into for a quick nap during a slow moment in the film perhaps?
The film does indeed have one or two slow moments but overall it is a powerful piece of cinema which gets its message through via a moving story rather than a lecture.
While it’s arguably solid rather than spectacular, when it needs to pack a punch it really does.
The cast is a strong one and includes Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Marie-Duff and Romola Garai. Interestingly, the male characters are largely sympathetic, if of their time. There is no pantomime villain and each man is given his own set of complexities which help us understand why he behaves the way he does. If male led films could do that for their female characters, it would go a long way to addressing the concerns of an industry that most years struggles to find 5 big enough roles and performances to nominate in the best actress category!
And if this film gets women in Saudi Arabia the vote it will have done its job.
Suffragette is released nationwide on 12th October .