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A lushly appointed period piece about the women’s suffrage movement in England in the early 20th century sounds like Masterpiece Theatre fodder, polite and tasteful and a bit pallid. The surprise of Suffragette is how much anger and urgency it contains, and how much new material it unearths. Many people may have forgotten that the fight for women’s rights once involved the same danger as other battles for equality, like the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. This eye-opening and fierce drama should attract awards attention and even healthy box-office returns from older audiences who may get a bit more than they bargained for.
The film marks an impressive achievement for three of the women involved in the production — director Sarah Gavron, screenwriter Abi Morgan, and lead actress Carey Mulligan, who follows her fine performance in Far From the Madding Crowd with an even stronger turn.
The story mixes fictional characters with real historical personages, including British feminist leader Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep in a small but vivid role). Mulligan’s Maud Watts is a composite character. She starts as a harried woman working in a laundry factory, who has a husband and young son and no time for any political activities. But when she sees a fellow worker at a rock-throwing demonstration, her curiosity is piqued, and she gradually becomes more deeply involved in the suffrage movement, even though her family is devastated by her growing militancy.
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Morgan (the writer of The Iron Lady, Shame and The Invisible Woman) probably took a look at Norma Rae, which also dealt with an uneducated factory worker’s growing political activism. But there are definite novelties here. For one thing, there is no male union organizer to awaken the heroine’s conscience. Other women are the ones who galvanize her, and they are all well delineated in Morgan’s sharp screenplay.
Gavron has directed a couple of small British films, but this picture should take her career to a new level. She supplies a consistently gritty, lived-in atmosphere, meticulously detailed and deglamorized. Cinematography, production and costume design are all first-rate.
It must be admitted that the film takes a little while to get going, and the Cockney accents are not always easy to decipher. But Suffragette builds power as it demonstrates that these women were not gentle protestors. They were angry and sometimes violent, and they were arrested and often treated brutally while incarcerated. The shocking climactic scene, which is taken from history, reminds us that all struggles for equality involve searing sacrifices.
Mulligan’s remarkably expressive face conveys the character’s profound but always credible journey from battered victim to articulate crusader. But the actress also captures the terrible human costs of any unyielding political battle. Several of the other performers also deserve high marks. Helena Bonham Carter gives her most restrained and affecting performance in years as a pharmacist who is also on the front lines. And there is a heartbreaking turn by Anne-Marie Duff as the fellow factory worker who first incites Maud to activism but then finds the battles too dangerous to continue.
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The male characters are not all so sharply drawn. Ben Whishaw is a fine actor, but he’s saddled with a rather one-dimensional role as Maud’s uncomprehending husband. Brendan Gleeson brings more dimension to his role as a police inspector who is not entirely unsympathetic to the women’s crusade.
The film ends with a series of startling statistics on how long it took many countries to grant women the right to vote. But the achievement of the film is that it goes way beyond facts and figures to summon the blazing fire in the fight for equality that has not quite reached its final victory.
Production companies: Ruby Films, Pathe, Film4
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Meryl Streep, Romola Garai, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson
Director: Sarah Gavron
Screenwriter: Abi Morgan
Producers: Alison Owen, Faye Ward
Executive producers: Cameron McCracken, Tessa Ross, Rose Garnett, Nik Bower, James Schamus, Teresa Moneo
Director of photography: Edu Grau
Production designer: Alice Normington
Costume designer: Jane Petrie
Editor: Barney Pilling
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Rated PG-13, 105 minutes
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