Two and a half stars (out of four)
PG-13 (violence, thematic elements, brief strong language, partial nudity)
(If you’re an Antelope Valley moviegoer, the film is playing at BLVD Cinemas in Lancaster, although I unfortunately can’t recommend the viewing experience there.)
Carey Mulligan is radiant and soulful in “Suffragette,” playing a turn-of-the-century working class Londoner who rises at dawn to see her small son off to day care so she can put in long, punishing hours at a fume-filled laundry.
The factory’s sleazy foreman treats Maude Watts better than the other girls, but there’s a price to be paid for his favor, as we eventually discover.
Later, Maude heads home to her one-room flat to make tea for her husband (Ben Whishaw, aka James Bond’s Q) and little boy (Adam Michael Dodd), then tends to her own washing before climbing into bed so she can face another thankless day.
If nothing else, “Suffragette” will make you eternally grateful you’re not a turn-of-the-century working class Londoner, especially a female one.
If the drama doesn’t offer much else in the way of inspiration that’s no fault of Mulligan’s. The actor brings Maude’s transformation from downtrodden worker bee to stoic foot soldier of a revolution to light in a way that writer Abi Morgan’s screenplay does not.
There’s a scene early on in which Mulligan’s Maude finds herself reluctantly testifying before Parliament about the working conditions she endures. When the statesman conducting the interviews asks her what the vote would mean to her, a look of bewilderment flits across her face, followed by a hope so tentative it breaks the heart.
At that moment, Maude imagines another life for herself, and we feel every lovely, aching shift in her awakening, her giddiness at having discovered her voice.
Therein lies the beauty of Mulligan’s performance. Maude’s journey to self-realization or radicalization, or whatever you want to call it, becomes something we can accept and emotionally invest in, despite the gaping holes the script leaves in its heroine’s emotional life.
Ushered into the suffrage movement by a feisty co-worker (Anne Marie-Duff), Maude stumbles onto rowdy protests and acts of civil disobedience, landing in prison, almost by accident, and out of her husband’s good graces.
Morgan and director Sarah Gavron don’t build a case for why Maude would let slip her strong, affectionate hold on her child, who must be the most adorable little boy in England. And yet, there she is, scrubbing angrily at her finger with a bar of soap to pry away her wedding ring, thereby relinquishing her maternal rights.
All this to join a band of outcasts who throw rocks through shop windows, blow up post boxes, and meet clandestine in chapels and crypts to plan further acts of rebellion at the behest of revered activist Emmeline Pankhurst.
The beloved Mrs. Pankhurst is played by Meryl Streep, who delivers a rousing speech from a balcony window while the police close in.
It’s a shame that this is Ms. Streep’s only appearance for “Suffragette” could use more of her ebullient spirit. The film is a mostly dreary affair, almost an academic exercise.
Gavron and Morgan run down the check list of indignities suffered by the women who agitated tirelessly for the right to vote, from abuse at home, to public humiliation, to harassment, beatings and force feedings by unsympathetic coppers (including Brendan Gleeson as the humorless Inspector Steed).
Characters of all classes and personalities — including a courageous chemist played by Helena Bonham Carter — come out of the woodwork to give their testimonies for the cause, but their sacrifices feel like the stuff of cinematic sentiment more than bleeding casualties of war.
And though there must have been men who were at least a bit sympathetic to the cause, you wouldn’t know it from the array of villainous males who march stoically through nearly every frame of “Suffragette.”
For all my criticism, I’d be tempted, if I had the power, to make the movie mandatory viewing for all women who find themselves on the fence when it comes to feminism.
As an alarming backlash against gender equality seems to be gathering ominously on the pop cultural horizon, like the dark clouds of some apocalyptic storm, it’s a valuable thing to be reminded that without these glorious early crusaders for women’s rights, we wouldn’t have the luxury of denying what they fought for.