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The Incredible Link Between Helena Bonham Carter & Suffragette Villain

In Sarah Gavron’s film Suffragette, about the fight to gain votes for women in Edwardian England, the Prime Minister, Lord Herbert Asquith, opposes women’s suffrage and, on this issue, falls squarely on the wrong side of history. When it came time to cast the film, which stars Carey Mulligan, Gavron had Helena Bonham Carter at the top of her wish list to play one of the Suffragettes. One slightly complicating factor is that Bonham Carter is the great-granddaughter of Asquith.

“We wanted her because she's such a fantastic actor and she had all of the qualities we were looking for,” Gavron tells The Credits. “It was so exciting to put her in the same frame as Carey Mulligan and Anne-Marie Duff and women you hadn't seen together on screen. Once we read about her family history, we were a little bit trepidatious. What would she think about this? Her playing a militant suffragette when she's a descendant of the arch-enemy?”

In the production notes producer Faye Ward recalls her conversations with Bonham Carter when they first approached her about the role: “We did discuss family history with Helena from the first. She told me about her grandmother Violet, Lord Asquith’s daughter, who was vocal in disliking the Suffragettes.”

Fortunately, Bonham Carter relished the opportunity to explore this part of her family history. “Violet allowed me to see another perspective. It seemed that it was because she was already a powerful independent woman she didn’t experience the constraints felt by others, and possibly didn’t understand the Suffragettes’ fight,” she says. “My grandmother was an indomitable woman so I wondered, why wasn’t she telling her father to listen and how could she have been anti-suffrage? My mum’s explanation is that Violet was treated like a man, so she never experienced any personal discrimination.”

In trying to understand her great-grandfather’s motivations, Bonham Carter realized that “Asquith was surrounded by strong women; all of his main relationships and confidantes were women. I think they were against the violence in the Suffragettes’ protests. I tried to understand my great‐grandfather’s point of view, but women were not being heard and the level of their frustration was indicated by blowing up things.”

Bonham Carter’s involvement adds an interesting dimension to Suffragette. She brought both a deeper insight into the mindset of the times through her family’s recollections, as well as a sense of synchronicity to the film.

Featured image: Helena Bonham Carter stars as Edith Ellyn director Sarah Gavron’s SUFFRAGETTE, a Focus Features release.
Credit : Steffan Hill / Focus Features

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alice Wasley

Alice Wasley is a freelance writer based in Sydney. When she’s not watching as many movies as she can get away with, she writes for a range of publications including GQ Australia and Marie Claire Australia. You can follow her on Instagram: @alicewasley or visit her website: www.alicewasley.com.

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