It is astonishing that less than 100 years ago women were unable to vote, could be married off at twelve and were considered the property of their husbands.

Rights were hard-won thanks to the suffragettes, so it is similarly astonishing to think it has taken this long for the story to come to the big screen.

Suffragette gets its red carpet premiere in Leicester Square this evening for the opening gala of BFI London Film Festival before going on general release on October 12.

One of its stars, three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep told the London press conference today: “For me, it is recent history. My grandmother was alive then and had a couple of children and would not have been capable of voting so I’m passionate about it.”

She added: “It feels recent and I think the great achievement of this film is it is not about women of a certain class.”

While Streep’s name looms large, she appears only briefly in the movie, as talismanic suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst.

Instead, it focuses on ordinary working class London girl Maud (former Woldingham School pupil Carey Mulligan), who falls into the movement. Chiswick-born Anne Marie Duff plays her best friend.

Director Sarah Gavron did consider making a straightforward biopic of Pankhurst.

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She said: “If we told that story, it would be the story of an exceptional woman.

“What we were interested in was the story of an ordinary woman, a woman with no platform, no title. Working class women were so often the vanguard of change who rarely get talked about.

“We thought to follow that woman would make it connect with women all over the world today.”

Academy Award-nominated Mulligan concurred that Suffragette is more than just a film about history.

She said: “What I love about this film is it didn’t feel like a documentary about a time, it felt like a film about today.

“It is a film to mark the achievements of what these women did and what they gave us but also to highlight where we are in the world. We still live in a society that is sexist and that goes throughout history.”

Even making a film about women’s rights, created predominantly by women, was tricky. Gavron worked on Suffragette for about a decade, while writer Abi Morgan was on board for around six years. Even Mulligan signed on a year before filming began.

Morgan, who penned The Iron Lady and Shame, said: “Film does take time, however I think film that is fronted by not one but an ensemble of women – and they’re not being funny – is hard. I think that became a huge obstacle.”

Beyond that, it is only recently that education has included the suffrage movement. Neither Gavron nor Mulligan, 30, were taught much about it at school.

Mulligan, who is married to Wimbledon musician Marcus Mumford, said: “I knew relatively little. I remember there was a small paragraph in a history book saying ‘they got there’, basically. I had lots of images of women politely marching the streets holding banners.

“Reading the script, I remember Googling as I went, thinking ‘is this real?’

The suffragettes endured regular imprisonment, police surveillance and brutality, hunger strikes and took part in direct action such as window smashing and blowing up postboxes.

One of the more extreme measures in the film is the blowing up of then-chancellor David Lloyd-George’s empty summerhouse in Walton-on-the-Hill, while the climax comes at the Epsom Derby where Emily Wilding Davison famously sacrificed herself for the cause.

Mulligan, for one, is grateful it’s not a fight she had to take on.

She said: “I have been so lucky to grow up in a generation- and in a family – where I haven’t had to fight. I have had a very lovely but easy upbringing and I’m incredibly privileged in that respect so I have never had to fight.

“I suppose we fight for more equality but we also fight for people who aren’t in our position. I don’t know if I would throw rocks for myself but I would like to think I would throw a rock for somebody else.”

Suffragette (12A) is screening this week as part of London Film Festival and is out October 12.