Opening night at Telluride featured dueling world premieres, as A24’s “Room” (IW review here) and Focus Features’ “Suffragette” were programmed opposite each other. Meryl Streep and Rooney Mara (“Carol”) both attended the first showings of Fox Searchlight’s documentary “He Named Me Malala” (review here) and “Suffragette,” in which Streep delivers a brief but potent cameo as wealthy Emmeline Pankhurst, who led scores of turn-of-the-century British women to fight for the right to vote. “We have been ridiculed and ignored,” Pankhurst cries. “Deeds and sacrifice must be the order of the day!”
Carey Mulligan carries this movie as ably as she did “Far from the Madding Crowd.” She plays Maud, a 24-year-old workhorse laundry drudge who is drawn into the suffragette movement by a co-worker (the excellent Anne-Marie Duff) and local pharmacist (Helena Bonham Carter). The harshness of Maud’s daily work life (her shoulder is scarred from past burns), where the factory boss hits on the younger women, contrasts with her cozy life at home with her husband (Ben Whishaw) and young son.
But as Mrs. Pankhurst and her well-to-do colleagues urge working women to join the cause as foot soldiers willing to make sacrifices, these women are beaten and harassed by police and spouses alike. Maud’s husband can’t take the neighborhood heat when his wife keeps clocking jail time. (1000 women were imprisoned during the long fight for suffrage.)
Brendan Gleeson plays one police inspector who painstakingly explains why females aren’t made for politics and can never win. “We don’t want to be lawbreakers,” Mrs. Pankhurst exhorts her troops. “We want to be lawmakers. We have been left with no alternative. I incite rebellion!”
Director Sarah Gavron worked on this meticulously crafted period film (supported by Film Four, the BFI, Pathe and Focus Features) with producers Faye Ward & Alison Owen (“Jane Eyre”) and screenwriter Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”) over six years. Buttressed by a strong score by Alexandre Desplat, the film packs a punch for many who don’t remember this turbulent history –during a time when women’s equality is still a timely issue–and should play well for adult audiences, after “Suffragette” opens the London Film Festival, through the fall awards season.
Streep came to Telluride for the first time since she received a tribute 17 years ago. At Focus Features’ cocktail party she waxed eloquent on the subject of gender inequality in Hollywood and also warmed to the subject at the after-screening Q & A. She warns that the New York Times is planning an expose on Hollywood hiring practices.