A little more than a century after they blew up mailboxes and smashed windows with bricks, the crusading British women who fought tooth and nail for the right to vote have finally been given their close-up in Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette. It’s an important and incendiary chapter of history that has an added timeliness since it springs from one of the least gender-representational industries in America. Which is why it’s a shame that, despite some excellent performances, this urgent, well-intentioned film feels so conventional and stolid.
Carey Mulligan plays a working-class Everywoman named Maud Watts—an East London laundry worker who toils in bleak sweatshop conditions while fighting off the advances of her leering foreman (Geoff Bell). The year is 1912, but there’s something about Maud’s suffering that feels just as contemporary as Charlize Theron’s in North Country. With her sad gaze and a washed-out face etched with hardship, Mulligan exquisitely imbues Maud with the defeated air of someone who knows what it feels like to have no say. At home, she’s just as powerless. Her husband (Ben Whishaw) is a prideful conservative who kicks her out and takes their young son when she starts attending subversive meetings and discovers her feminist voice.
The movement that Maud enters with wide eyes and fiery ideals isn’t interested in civil disobedience. Spurred on by their leader-in-hiding, Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, passing through in the briefest of cameos), Maud and her bomb- throwing sisters (including a welcome Helena Bonham Carter) plot a series of headline-grabbing acts of violent political theater. The stunts not only land her in jail, they also bring her to the attention of a police inspector (Brendan Gleeson) who’s too dogged and determined to see that he’s on the wrong side of history.
Speaking of history, Suffragette certainly puts a lot of it on its fictional heroine’s shoulders. Probably too much. Exploited at work, marginalized at home, brutalized in prison, and emotionally put through the wringer as a mother, Mulligan’s Maud is marched through virtually every station of the cross when it comes to suffering. It’s as if Gavron and writer Abi Morgan didn’t trust their story enough and stacked the deck to justify Maud’s feminist awakening when no justification is required. It’s enough that women were treated as second-class citizens in a civilized country. As a result, Suffragette ends up feeling a bit melodramatic and manipulative, heavy-handed in the moments it should be most human. Fortunately, standing out among the film’s sea of black coats and brimmed hats is Mulligan’s more-subtle-than-her-surroundings performance. With one look into her expressive, heartbroken eyes, you know exactly what she’s fighting for. B