Carey Mulligan and Ben Whishaw in a scene from Suffragette.
Carey Mulligan and Ben Whishaw in a scene from Suffragette. Photos Steffan Hill

Role reversal teaches valuable lesson to men of Suffragette

THE title should have given them a clue, but it turns out a string of male actors turned down the chance to appear in the new film Suffragette, about women's fight for the vote in Britain, because the roles for men were not meaty enough.

Scriptwriter Abi Morgan, who also penned The Iron Lady and Shame, revealed the battle to cast the male roles and added a film fronted by "an ensemble female cast" had been tougher to get made.

The aim was to get "complex but supporting" male roles but finding the actors to play them was unusually tough, Morgan said at a press conference in London.

"When we came to cast the film it was very difficult because we kept getting calls from agents saying the parts weren't big enough for the men."

She added it was a "huge tribute" to Brendan Gleeson, Ben Wishaw, Sam West and Finbar Lynch for taking on the supporting roles in the film.

Her statements raised a laugh as the lack of strong complex female roles on film has long been a charge levelled at the movie industry.

UN Women, a United Nations group looking at gender equality, criticised the global film industry for not creating enough speaking roles for women last year.

Several months later, a study of women in television and film at San Diego State University found that women were just 12% of the protagonists in the top grossing films in the US in 2014.

Suffragette is set in 1912 England and follows the battle for universal suffrage as told through the eyes of Carey Mulligan's fictional character Maud Watts. It has a female ensemble cast, and women in prominent positions behind the camera.

One reviewer said the suffragettes "finally get the film they deserve" but it took a decade to make it to the screen. Director Sarah Gavron said the academics who advised on the film were not surprised the story had not been tackled on film before.

"They said it took ages to get women's history taken seriously, it took a long time to get it on the curriculum," she said.

Morgan added that given some public records, which revealed the level of police surveillance, were not opened until around 2002 "makes you realise this is something that has been suppressed and denied. For us it has been a real detective job to unpick the research".

"Film does take time," Morgan said. "However a film where it's fronted not by one but an ensemble of women and they're not being funny or romantic is hard. That became a huge obstacle."

Meryl Streep, who plays Emmeline Pankhurst in the film, railed against the "lack of inclusion (of women) in the decision-making bodies in every single enterprise around the world". The Oscar-winning actress hopes Suffragette will make a global difference.

"To make a film like this, it will circle the globe," Streep said. "It will encourage people who have very little hope, people whose lives look almost like the lives of the women in 1913 in London. It's a great encouragement."

Suffragette opens nationally on Boxing Day.


Stars: Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw

Director: Sarah Gavron

Rating: M

Reviewer's last word: This well-made drama highlights a worthy chapter of history, but its supremely talented cast is strung with a tepid script.

Star Profile: Carey Mulligan

Quirky fact: Did not learn to drive until she was age 23, and only learned to do so for the film Never Let Me Go (2010).

Best known for: An Education, The Great Gatsby, Far From The Madding Crowd.

If you like this movie you'll like these: Brooklyn, The Lady in the Van, Trumbo, Carol.

Quote: "My generation tends to play it cool these days. But there is no room for cool. You have got to be irritating and desperate, and if you are not it is terribly boring."