Women having the right to vote is such an obvious state of affairs in this country it’s easy to forget how angry and savage the battle around women’s suffrage was, and the way that “Suffragette” reminds us of the pain and sacrifice that went into that victory is one of this film’s strengths.
Another virtue — in fact, the film’s single biggest asset — is the performance of star Carey Mulligan, who plays a political innocent, an ordinary woman who is radicalized by events taking place in 1912-13 in the United Kingdom.
Last seen in another period film, “Far From the Madding Crowd,” Mulligan gives one of her most persuasive, convincing performances as Maud Watts, a working wife and mother from London’s East End. It’s a very emotional presentation delivered with the kind of passion that’s essential in having us believe in Maud’s radical transformation.
The list of “Suffragette’s” virtues, however, is not without an end. Though ably acted and indisputably on the side of the angels, “Suffragette” as directed by Sarah Gavron is more dead-on earnest and schematic than it needs to be.
Written by the impressive Abi Morgan (“The Invisible Woman,” “The Iron Lady,” “Shame”), “Suffragette” also leans heavily on contrivance. As a result, the reality of what we see hasn’t been made fully convincing, even though much of it actually happened.
“Suffragette” begins in 1912 at the industrial-scale laundry where Maud is employed. As we see the largely female workforce go about all kinds of backbreaking labor, we hear a voice-over of male politicians pontificating about how women simply aren’t strong enough to be trusted with the vote.
It is a time, we’ve been told, when Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (played by Meryl Streep in a brief cameo), has called for civil disobedience in service of the cause, saying that “it is deeds, not words that will get us the vote.”
Maud, however, is indifferent to this social movement. Happily married to the caring Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and doting on their young son, she has never given the business of voting a second thought.
Then, window-shopping in a posh neighborhood, she is surprised to find friend and co-worker Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) among a crowd of women throwing stones, breaking windows and yelling, “Votes for women!”
When her son becomes sick, Maud goes to neighborhood pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) for help, and it turns out that Edith is a staunch suffragette as well. And when Violet is supposed to testify briefly in Parliament about work at the laundry, circumstances conspire to have Maud, who has never spoken in public in her life, have a heart-to-heart chat with governmental leaders, including key minister David Lloyd George, about her life.
Completely innocent activities, such as attending a speech, put Maud into conflict with the authorities, spearheaded by police inspector Steed (an effective Brendan Gleeson), who are using new spying techniques to secretly photograph women they feel will be making trouble.
Maud ends up arrested for no reason, imprisoned and completely humiliated. Worse yet, when she returns home her neighbors shun her and husband Sonny feels their marriage is in jeopardy. All this pressure does, however, is make Maud more determined to fight for a cause she barely heard of when the film began.
“Suffragette” has gone to a lot of trouble to accurately reflect history, and the extreme things it depicts, including radical actions by the women and the strong-armed methods the authorities responded with — techniques like forced feeding of jailed prisoners — really took place.
The film mixes real people, not only Pankhurst but the firebrand Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press) with the fictional Maud, and it has effectively avoided turning key male characters such as Sonny and the inspector into one-dimensional villains.
Still, despite all these good things, “Suffragette” does not live and breathe like the best films do, and that is a shame. As a closing crawl reminds us, there are still parts of the world where women cannot vote, and as good as “Suffragette” is when at its best, the story it tells deserves better.
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MPAA rating: PG-13, for some intense violence, thematic elements, brief strong language and partial nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: Arclight, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles