“Suffragette,” directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan, gives a starched “Masterpiece Theatre” veneer to an incendiary subject. Beginning in 1912 in London’s East End, it’s about the early fight for women’s right to vote, a fight that, as depicted here, is considerably more violent than we may have been aware of.
The protagonist, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), works deadening hours at a laundry factory – the first shot we see of her is the stain of her sweat on her thin blouse.
A composite of several real-life people, Maud seems the least likely of candidates to become a feminist crusader; she barely has the energy for her husband (Ben Whishaw) and young son (Adam Michael Dodd). But when she is caught up in a brick-throwing street demonstration involving a fellow factory worker (Anne-Marie Duff), her eyes are opened not to the rampant injustice of women’s lives (she already knew that) but to the possibility of rallying for her rights.
Chief rallier is feminist leader Emmeline Pankhurst, played by Meryl Streep in a screen appearance so brief it would be charitable to call it a cameo. She’s effective, of course, especially when she’s exhorting the foot soldiers from a balcony, but anyone expecting to see Streep in a costarring role here (as the ads imply) will be flummoxed.
Another inspiration for Maud is Helena Bonham Carter’s Edith Ellyn, a pharmacist with a no-nonsense approach to radical change. She is righted by her rage.
Although the film’s production values are so carefully appointed as to seem stagey rather than lived-in, and although the various confrontations are uninspiringly rendered, Gavron at least has the good sense to keep Maud front and center. Mulligan, as she demonstrated yet again most recently in “Far From the Madding Crowd,” is one of those actresses whose face is a road map of moment-to-moment emotion. She’s a fiercely intelligent performer, and that suits her here. She gives some human weight to Maud’s big moments, especially when they veer dangerously close to hokum.
When, for example, Maud, whose political activities have resulted in her forced separation from her family, stands outside her son’s window in the pouring rain, we may think of “Stella Dallas” and countless other tear-jerkers; but the tears, thanks to Mulligan, are at least pulled honestly. And when Maud endures a five-day hunger strike in prison, and, shrieking, is finally force-fed, her eventual emergence into freedom is a mixed blessing: She has survived, but her wraithlike countenance registers the dire cost.
Maud has her counterpart in the police inspector, Arthur Steed (wonderfully played by Brendan Gleeson), a burly, bearded enforcer who is not without sympathy for the women’s cause, and yet pursues those women relentlessly. From a psychological standpoint, he is the film’s most complex character; he’s two-faced, but both of his faces appear authentic.
When he tells Maud that she is only “fodder” for her cause, he is not altogether wrong; he may believe it when he tells her she is in a battle “you can’t win.” Overhearing her screams in prison as Maud is being force-fed, he recoils at the brutality and complains to higher-ups. Steed is not portrayed as a villain, which is why his villainy, however reluctant, is all the more troubling.
Gavron’s conventional approach to the material compares unfavorably to the newsreels and stills of the actual suffragettes that close out the film. The harsh reality comes through in that footage in a way that the film as a whole only approaches in bits and pieces. An extensive list of statistics at the end reminds us how long it took for so many countries to finally recognize women’s right to vote, and also singles out those countries, like Saudi Arabia, that are still holding out. The movie is telling us the fight is not over. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for violence, thematic elements, brief strong language, and partial nudity.)