As Meryl Streep plays Emmeline Pankhurst, we look at other iconic women on film

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Anna Brech
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Re-creating an iconic figure on-screen must be one of the toughest jobs in cinema. This rich, colourful genre is filled with potential (it's ripe Oscar territory) and also open to controversy, with delicate handling required when it comes to how and why a certain person is portrayed. Meryl Streep is, of course, master of the art and it comes as little surprise to learn that she has been confirmed to play Emmeline Pankhurst in a new film about history's best-known feminist campaigner. Suffragette, written by Abi Morgan (who also wrote the script for The Iron Lady), will co-star Carey Mulligan as a "foot-soldier" in the female rights movement of the early 20th Century. We can't wait to see how Streep will embody Pankhurst and her life on-screen, and to build up in style, we've taken a look at how other influential women have been brought to life on the big screen...

Meryl Streep as Maggie Thatcher

While reviews of 2011's The Iron Lady weren't wholly enthusiastic, Meryl Streep won an Oscar for her portrayal of Britain's first (and only) female prime minister Maggie Thatcher. Streep drew plaudits for her subtle, pitch-perfect performance of this massively divisive politician and managed to strike a balance between pathos and hard-hitting reality. "To me she was a figure of awe for her personal strength and grit," Streep said at the time. "To have come up, legitimately, through the ranks of the British political system, class-bound and gender-phobic as it was, in the time that she did and the way that she did, was a formidable achievement."

Audrey Tautou as Coco Chanel

The chic and brilliant Audrey Tautou took on the role of France's greatest fashion icon for 2009 biopic Coco Before Chanel. Critics claimed that Coco Chanel's alleged homophobia and anti-Semitic beliefs were underplayed in the film, but Tautou maintains she tried her best to dig under the surface of her character. "She was a liar, so it's difficult to know who she was before she became famous and had some success," she said. "It was more interesting to get as deep as possible in her sensitivity and creation, rather than just giving the main cliché of her life."

Naomi Watts as Princess Diana

It's a brave woman indeed who agrees to embody someone adored and idolised on the scale of Princess Diana, especially as this 2013 film faced opposition before it had even been released - with some contending that it was an affront to her family, and especially her two sons. "It wasn’t an easy decision because although I was fascinated and compelled by playing her and exploring her, I was also afraid of people’s comments and objections," Watts said. "Having said that, the reasons I felt afraid became the reasons I wanted to do it."

Michelle Yeoh as Aung San Suu Kyi

Michelle Yeoh delivered a powerhouse performance as Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, in 2011 film The Lady. "She’s always been an idol of mine, and I’ve always gravitated towards strong female roles," said Yeoh, who took on the role when Suu Kyi was still under house arrest. "It’s one of those movies you really have to engage with your audience. I hope that people will really understand who is Aung San Suu Kyi, where is Burma and about this fight for democracy."

Dame Helen Mirren as The Queen

No other person but Dame Helen Mirren could slip into the role of Britain's monarch quite so seamlessly. Mirren not only played the Queen, she was the Queen, creating a reserved, steely character that was so believable it won her an Oscar. Even the Royal Family approved; when Prince William presented Mirren with a Fellowship Bafta recently, he jokingly referred to her as "gran".

Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart

Legendary American pilot Amelia Earhart was brought to life by none other than Hilary Swank in 2009 biopic Amelia. Swank said the role was made easier by the fact that she felt a real empathy with the aviation pioneer. "She was actively pursuing her goals and her dreams and obviously that's something that I've done and continue to do," the actress said. "I love to travel. I'm a curious person and she was obviously curious and a traveller. One of her biggest passions was to see the world and it's always been mine."

Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf

Nicole Kidman drastically changed her appearance with the help of a prosthetic nose to become writer Virginia Woolf in 2003's The Hours and bagged herself an Oscar in the process. Kidman later said the role was a life-saver for her during a difficult period in her life. "Walking into the river with those stones in my pockets — I chose life," she said of the scene where she portrayed Woolf's drowning in the River Ouse. "At the time, I was at a low point, and by playing her, it put me into a place of appreciating life."

Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I

Many actresses have brought Queen Elizabeth I to life on-screen but Cate Blanchett's portrayal of one of history's original female crusaders in 1998 period piece Elizabeth is one of the most memorable. "She's ripe for reinvention because she's such an enigma," said Blanchett, who earned an Oscar nomination for her performance. "If you think about the Elizabethan age, when the English culture as we know it was crystallized, it's a fascinating period of history. So I think there'll be many more Elizabeths long after this film, because I think she's a fantastic point on which to leap off for a story."

Words: Anna Brech Photos: Rex Features

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.