The fancy period costumes and bleak, lived-in settings may be strictly Britain in 1912, but the rage and passion feel strictly contemporary in the history-based Suffragette, a heated new movie about the trailblazing women who united to win the right to vote.
Carey Mulligan (in her best performance in years) plays wife, mother, and laundry worker Maude, who, although only in her 20s, already looks crushed by a world without options. At work, her grabby, sexually predatory boss (hiss-worthy Geoff Bell) views Maude’s young fellow female employees as property, his personal disposable harem. At home, she faces more subtle forms of oppression from her stodgy, loving, condescending husband (Ben Whishaw, always good).
The movie spends way too long on Maude hovering on the sidelines as her fellow factory workers and sympathetic others sound the cry for better pay and equality. But she’s shocked into action when her politically active friend (Anne-Marie Duff) turns up beaten so badly by her spouse that she can’t present the feminists’ case to the authorities symbolized by the apparently fair and balanced David Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller). Maud testifies instead, but, in the end, the ruling class denies voting reform, and Maude rebels, fighting shoulder to shoulder alongside voiceless, powerless women driven to stuff bombs into mailboxes and smash the windows of posh shops. Her growing awareness of injustice and her militancy spark problems at home that threatens her with the loss of her beloved young son (Adam Michael Dodd). It also lands her in the crosshairs of a police inspector (Brendan Gleeson) looking to crush the growing feminist surge.
When the women face arrest and physical and mental abuse – one, famously, loses her life in a very public setting – director Sarah Gavron swings into action with an especially vivid immediacy that almost suggests footage from the evening news. The script by Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady) sometimes moves in fits, starts, and slogans and it shortchanges too many of the secondary characters by skimping over personal detail. But once it builds up a head of steam – galvanized by the performances of Mulligan, Duff, and a subtly superb Helena Bonham-Carter – the movie scalds.
Meryl Streep gets trotted out as early feminist firebrand Emmeline Pankhurst mostly for a rousing balcony scene, a la Evita, but she’s simply window-dressing and the messages she spouts sound way too contemporary. Suffragette lingers in memory and not just because it ends with a crawl announcing, among other injustices, which countries still deny women fundamental rights.