By Brooks Barnes
A scene from “Suffragette,” which was shown at the 42nd annual Telluride Film Festival. From left, the actresses Anne-Marie Duff, Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter.
TELLURIDE, Colo. — Film festivals have sharply different personalities. The one that got underway here on Friday is wealthy and white, and it is the Tiffany of festivals, as its promotional materials accurately maintain.
But every film festival essentially unfolds in the same way: A generalized narrative takes hold, often fanned by publicists, and reporters and attendees run with it, whether it is accurate or not. This year, the Telluride Film Festival is all about women. Got it?
The opening film was “He Named Me Malala,” a light documentary about Malala Yousafzai, the activist and teenage Nobel laureate who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban. The sophisticated “Carol,” starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as lovers, is playing here. So is the harrowing “Room,” about an abused woman (Brie Larson) trapped for seven years in a shed with her 5-year-old son.
Anyone expecting “Suffragette” to be a glossy look at a forgotten page in history — the women’s rights movement in Britain in the early 1900s — got a shock. Directed by Sarah Gavron, “Suffragette” begins with rocks crashing through store windows and continues with horrific working conditions, police beatings and a sobbing child ripped from the arms of a mother, who has no rights.
“I didn’t want it to be a sanitized version of history,” Ms. Gavron said in an interview here on Saturday. “In fact, I didn’t want to make a film that feels like history at all. Think about Pussy Riot. We’ve come a long way, but there is a lot of work left to do.”
Asked about the extensive use of close-ups in “Suffragette,” which stars Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep, Ms. Gavron answered, “I didn’t want to let the audience off the hook. I wanted to show the pain these women were in.”
But Ms. Streep, speaking to a reporter from Deadline.com, an entertainment news site, hit on something that seemed lost in the rush to tie up this year’s Telluride in a neat narrative bow. “I’m so tired of hearing about female empowerment,” she said. “I just want women to be included.”
Put another way: It’s wonderful that so many films here are telling stories about women, but it’s also O.K. for films to be about men or sheep (“Rams” is a selection here) or whatever. What matters is that the voices of one gender are no longer being left out. Films do not have to be all one thing.
Even if the roughly 4,000 people who attend this festival are not especially diverse, Telluride programmers seem to have worked hard to serve up a mix of films. The drama “Beasts of No Nation,” for instance, stars Idris Elba and Abraham Attah in a story about a child soldier in Africa.
Mr. Elba is already generating Oscar buzz for that role, as is Johnny Depp, who plays the Boston crime boss James (Whitey) Bulger in “Black Mass,” which is also playing here. On Saturday night, Telluride will show the director Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs,” which has a mostly male principal cast, led by Michael Fassbender.
After a Saturday morning showing of “Room,” Lenny Abrahamson, who directed the film, said at a Q. and A. session that he struggled to cast the boy who plays Ms. Larson’s trapped son. The actor who got the part, Jacob Tremblay, 8, has to carry the movie “on his shoulders,” Mr. Abrahamson said.
Could Jacob be this awards season’s Quvenzhané Wallis, the young actress nominated for an Oscar in 2013 for “Beasts of the Southern Wild”?
Maybe. He got a standing ovation. But maybe not. He does not fit the narrative.