Suffragette | 2015
Sarah Gavron’s film dutifully records the transition of the campaign for women’s right to vote in the UK from peaceful protest to militant action. To keep the sympathy of a mass audience, the scales are tipped a little too much from the righteous fury that propelled the movement to more screen-friendly noble suffering.
And the element of class is airbrushed out. In fact, it’s doubtful that Maud Watts’ husband would have been able to vote either at the time, since this privilege was only open to property-owning men.
The film conjures up early 20th Century England by the use of astonishing period locations, largely in London and Southeast England.
Two separate locations were used to portray the grim workplace.
The interior was built in the huge workshop at The Factory in Highfield Oval, Harpenden, about 25 miles north of central London, in Hertfordshire. Originally a children’s home, it now houses Youth With A Mission, an international Christian organisation.
The exterior is the more familiar environs of the Chatham Historic Dockyard, in Kent. Usefully for film and TV companies, its maritime environment boasts a variety of industrial buildings, Georgian and Victorian architecture lining cobbled streets on an 80-acre site.
It’s previously been seen on screen in Guy Ritchie’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes and his 2015 version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., along with Stephen Sommers’ 1999 The Mummy, Tom Hooper’s 2013 film of hit musical Les Misérables and Bill Condon's Mr Holmes, with Ian McKellen as the legendary sleuth.
Maud lives with husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and young son Georgie in Walton House, on the Boundary Estate, near Arnold Circus, Shoreditch, London E2. These huge, red-brick tenements, not far from the real Bethnal Green, were built in the early 1900s for local factory workers.
After decades of the cause being ignored, Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) calls for civil disobedience, controversially including the destruction of property.
On an errand to the West End, Maud gazes wistfully at the enticing shop displays when she's shocked to witness a barrage of stones smashing the glass windows.
This ‘West End’ is to the east of the city, on Cornhill, London EC3, running east from Bank Underground Station to Leadenhall Street. Cornhill was the centre of the City’s financial business and the station, of course, is named for the nearby Bank of England, standing on Threadneedle Street.
You can clearly see the famous Cornhill Water Pump, which provides its own history: “On this spot a well was first made and a house of correction built thereon by Henry Wallis, Mayor of London in the year 1282”
The shop being attacked is Smythson, 7 Royal Exchange Buildings, the luxury leather goods emporium – though a section of the store front was recreated in the studio for close-ups of the actual window-smashing.
By the way, this is the same block of shops from which Bridget buys her new diary at the end of Bridget Jones’s Diary.
The terraced street where Maud sees newspaper headlines about the rioting, and also learns that Mrs Pankhurst has gone into hiding, is Theed Street at Roupell Street, SE1, near Waterloo. And it’s here that Maud herself is later recognised from the papers after her arrest. The same streets were seen in Legend, Brian Helgeland’s 2015 film about the Kray brothers, with Tom Hardy as both of the gangster twins.
The escalation of the Suffragettes' tactics is regarded by the authorities as dangerously subversive and Special Branch is charged with keeping them under constant surveillance.
The interior of the police HQ, in which Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson) is charged with the task, is that of the Lethaby Building, Southampton Row at Theobalds Road in Holborn, London WC1, which used to house the Central St Martin’s School of Art. Its period featured previously supplied the MI6 wartime HQ in The Imitation Game, with Benedict Cumberbatch as codebreaker Alan Turing.
When a Parliamentary committee looking into the issue of women’s suffrage, headed by then Chancellor of the Exchequer – and future Prime Minister – Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller), asks for personal testimonies, Maud unexpectedly finds herself obliged to relate her own experience when the intended speaker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) turns up bearing unmistakeable signs of physical abuse.
Headed to the meeting, the Suffragettes cross Westminster Bridge from South London and look up at what’s generally referred to as Big Ben. More properly, this is the Elizabeth Tower – Ben is the enormous bell it houses which chimes the hour.
These are familiar locations in London-set films but not so familiar is the interior of the Palace of Westminster and its octagonal Central Lobby which, it’s claimed, is making its first appearance in a feature film.
The familiar Gothic fripperies of the complex are so familiar that we often forget how comparatively modern it is. The original Palace of Westminster burned down in 1834 and a new building was commissioned from Charles Barry with decorative styling by the slightly unhinged genius Augustus Pugin and it’s his obsessive, fussy mock-Gothicism that now gives the government buildings their quaintly archaic feel.
The hearing is held in the real Committee Room 16.
It’s outside the grand Sovereign’s Entrance that the initially optimistic gathering of Suffragettes turns angry when Lloyd George announces that the status quo will remain and women will still be denied the right to vote.
There had been a moment of hope when Violet informs Maud that her testimony had an effect as they walk through the cemetery of St John’s Churchyard in front of the old Turk’s Head pub at 1 Green Bank, Wapping, East London.
A little extra dressing was added to the original frontage – which fortunately happened to be captured by Google’s Streetview camera in 2017.
Princelet Street, in the East End, was traditionally a desperately poor area and home to waves of immigrants from Huguenots (French Protestants fleeing religious persecution in the 17th Century) and Jews to the current Bengali community.
Ironically, the very unfashionability of this poor area of London that left it undeveloped has lead to its untouched period houses now being highly desirable. Apart from the famous curry houses of nearby Brick Lane, Spitalfields is now the centre of a lively arts and entertainment scene.
The violent overreaction by the police outside Parliament sees Maud arrested and imprisoned, for the first time.
The major place of detention for women prisoners in London was Holloway Prison in North London, now closed but which had already been modernised far too much to be used for filming .
Again, several different locations are blended together. The prison cells are those of the old 17th Century Clerkenwell House of Detention (originally the Middlesex House of Detention) on Sans Walk in Clerkenwell. These were the basement of the old Clerkenwell Bridewell Prison which was demolished and replaced by the Hugh Myddleton School in 1893.
The school itself closed in the early Sixties to be redeveloped into apartments, but the old cellars remain.
The vast underground system of cells is now used as an events/performance space, and has been seen on screen in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, as the 'Amsterdam' dungeon in The Hitman's Bodyguard and in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
The exercise yard where the women bemoan the sacrifices they are required to make, and where Maud first meets Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press) who goes on to be such a pivotal figure in the story, is the Victorian Horsley Towers, Ockham Road South near Leatherhead in Surrey. Built in 1828 – and coincidentally designed by Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament – Horsley Towers became a girls’ school in 1926 but is now used as a wedding venue.
Horsley was also used as a location for Alice Through the Looking Glass, the 2016 sequel to Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland.
The overview of the prison’s central hall is F Block of Ruthin Gaol, Clwyd Street, Ruthin, Denbighshire in Wales. Closed as a prison in 1916, the old gaol was used as council offices but has since been renovated and is now open as a museum.
The prison gates, outside which Maud gets the medal to commemorate her first arrest is Lincoln’s Inn Gate, Newman’s Row, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the heart of the city’s old legal district packed with solicitors’ chambers. The more frivolous Gothic excesses are removed digitally from the ceremonial entrance to New Square, and some seriously severe walls added. You can see the entrance in all its glory in Billy Wilder’s Witness For The Prosecution.
Lincoln’s Inn is one of the four Inns of Court (professional associations for lawyers), along with nearby Gray’s Inn, Middle Temple and Inner Temple.
New Square itself has been featured in Tony Richardson’s rumbustious Oscar-winning 1963 film of Tom Jones, Charles Crichton's A Fish Called Wanda, 2015 drama Mr Holmes again, and 2013 romcom About Time. Action movies Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Wonder Woman have also made use of this usually sedate location.
When word spreads that the elusive Suffragette leader herself is going to address a public meeting, the Suffragettes gather in Myddelton Square, Islington, London N1, to hear an inspiring speech delivered by Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) from the balcony of 18 Myddelton Square.
There follows the inevitable police interest and, after a further arrest, Maud is not only thrown out by her husband but also loses her job at the laundry. The abrupt break with her former life sees Maud involving herself more deeply in the political movement.
The secret meeting place of the more militant Suffragettes headed by Edith Ellyn is the Priory Church of St Bartholomew The Great in West Smithfield. A screen regular, the church has featured as the site of the non-wedding in 1994 romcom Four Weddings And A Funeral; as ‘Nottingham Cathedral’ in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves; as well as appearing in Shakespeare in Love; The Other Boleyn Girl; Amazing Grace; Elizabeth: The Golden Age; and even as ‘St Paul’s Cathedral’ in, again, Sherlock Holmes.
It’s from here that the notorious campaign to disrupt the city’s communications by blowing up postboxes and cutting telegraph wires is planned.
Maud enjoys one brief day with her son, at the bandstand in the middle of Arnold Circus, Shoreditch, the centre of the estate in which she lived, before the serious campaign begins.
The WSPU headquarters is 29 Lincoln's Inn Fields at Newman's Row, coincidentally just across the road from the location used for the prison gate.
Red post boxes are destroyed in Spring Gardens in front of the Old Admiralty Building alongside the Mall, and on the west side of the Courtyard of Somerset House on the Strand.
This, if you didn’t recognise it, is another frequent movie go-to, seen in two Bond movies: GoldenEye (as ‘St Petersburg’) and Tomorrow Never Dies (as the ‘Ministry of Defence’. The popular filming location can also be seen in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (as turn-of-the-century ‘Manhattan’), as the exterior of ‘Devonshire House’ in historical biopic The Duchess, with Keira Knightley; yet another Holmes movie – Billy Wilder’s superb The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (as the ‘Diogenes Club’ where Holmes meets his older brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee); as ‘Buckingham Palace’ in King Ralph; in Shanghai Knights (it's where Jackie Chan invents the kung fu movie at the end of the film); and even as ‘Beverly Hills’ in Bride And Prejudice.
By now, Violet has become pregnant and, with the consequences of militant action becoming more serious, she leaves the movement. As she takes her leave, there's a rare moment of tranquility alongside the lake in Painshill Park, Portsmouth Road, Cobham, Surrey, standing in for London's 'Regents Park'. The beautifully landscaped 18th Century park has previously hosted the filming of 101 Dalmatians and 2009's Dorian Gray with Ben Barnes.
An attack on the house of a government minister results in a serious crackdown and Maud finds herself arrested yet again, this time on Grace’s Alley, outside the old Wilton’s Music Hall, 1 Grace’s Alley, Wellclose Square, off Cable Street, E1.
The hall, built in 1858, was the first and one of the most successful of London's music halls. It was taken over by scandalised Methodists in the 1880s, and run as a mission until 1956, when it became a rag warehouse. For many years it lay dilapidated, used only for film shoots and music videos.
Its wonderful interior can be seen in two biopics – Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin, with Robert Downey Jr, and Karel Reisz’s Isadora, with Vanessa Redgrave as the flamboyant dancer and is also featured in The Danish Girl, Peter Medak's The Krays, Douglas McGrath’s 2002 film of Nicholas Nickleby, Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream and John Landis’s Burke And Hare.
The film’s emotional climax comes with the death of Emily Davison after being knocked down by the Kings’ race horse during the Epsom Derby – the tragedy which finally focuses the press on the Suffragette’s cause.
The home of middle-class Alice Haughton (Romola Garai), where Maud ultimately finds a position for Violet’s daughter, Maggie, is on King’s Bench Walk in London’s Inner Temple, another of London’s Inns of Court, standing to the southeast of Lincoln’s Inn, between Fleet Street and the Thames.
The Temple name comes from the church belonging to the Knights Templar – yes, the organisation at the heart of Dan Brown’s fanciful The Da Vinci Code.