Two upcoming films showcase the remarkable lives of real women from very different historical periods. Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots—in theaters December 7—showcases the life of the title's legendary royal (played by Saoirse Ronan), especially in light of her complicated relationship with her “sister” to the south, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex—in theaters December 25—follows a more contemporary woman’s tale: the anti-discrimination case that put Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) on the map and eventually led to her being nominated for the the United States Supreme Court.
To salute these upcoming real-life stories about women, we’re highlighting some other unforgettable real women from our films. From a grand queen in London to a simple housewife in Virginia, these stories provide heroic examples of women who made a difference.
Queen Victoria in Victoria & Abdul
Stephen Frears’s Victoria & Abdul brings to light a surprising chapter of Queen Victoria’s life. After meeting Abdul (Ali Fazal), an Indian clerk who'd traveled to London to present a special coin for her Golden Jubilee, Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) finds herself emotionally drawn to this man from a world she has never visited. For Dench, Abdul brought to the older woman “that wonderful kind of flowering, where she thought, ‘This is really something worth living for.’” Dench captures the hard reality and tender heart of a woman who had to fight her family and advisors over who she could befriend. As The Observer notes, “She rules with imperial power, but reveals heartbreaking tenderness when she wanders in the garden with the aid of a walking cane or confides in Abdul about her loneliness in the 30 years since Albert’s death.”
Emmeline Pankhurst in Suffragette
Many of the featured characters in Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette are fictional, composite figures woven together from the extensive research screenwriter Abi Morgan did about the early 20th century English women who fought for their right to vote. The activist Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep), however, was real and the stirring address she delivers in the film was pulled together from many of her real speeches. For Streep, playing Pankhurst gave her a real sense of how that movement relates to women today. "To stand on the balcony and look at these uplifted, hopeful young faces, it made me cry," Streep remembers. "I couldn't get over it. You take your hope from the next generation."
Gerda Wegener in The Danish Girl
Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl tells a complex love story of how Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) supported her husband Einar (Eddie Redmayne) as he transitioned to become Lili Elbe. For US Magazine, “her unconditional support is nothing short of heroic.” But Gerda was more than just a faithful wife. For art historian Andrea Rygg Karberg, “Gerda was a pioneer who spent two decades as part of the Parisian art scene and revolutionized the way women are portrayed in art.” For bringing out all aspects of this talented real woman who defied convention and expectation, Vikander received a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award®.
Antonina Żabińska in The Zookeepers Wife
Adapted from Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction bestseller, Niki Caro’s The Zookeepers’ Wife focuses mostly on Antonina Żabińska (Jessica Chastain), the real-life Polish woman who, along with her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), sheltered Jews fleeing Nazi persecution during World War II by hiding them in an abandoned zoo. Bringing this woman’s life to the screen was deeply personal for Chastain who explained, “I want to do whatever I can to celebrate those women in history and to inspire young girls.” The story may have taken place over 70 years ago, but it still speaks to us now, showing us, according to AP News, that “in this time of uncertainty that even in the face of astonishing evil, humanity and goodness can also rise to the occasion.”
Mildred Loving in Loving
Jeff Nichols’ Loving follows Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving’s long journey to find justice in America. Married in 1958, the mixed-race couple were soon arrested for violating Virginia's anti-miscegenation laws. Unable to live in Virginia, Mildred reached out to then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, a cry for help that eventually led to their conviction being overturned in a landmark 1967 Supreme Court decision. “She’s my hero,” Negga says about the real-life character she plays in an Academy Award®-nominated performance. For Rolling Stone, “the stabbing simplicity of Negga’s acting is breathtaking."