Entertainment

One defiant step for womankind

Natalie Press and Carey Mulligan in a scene from “Suffragette.”
Natalie Press and Carey Mulligan in a scene from “Suffragette.” Focus Features

What It’s About

“Well-behaved women seldom make history,” Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich observed in 1976. The earnest historical drama “Suffragette” capitalizes the slogan and adds an exclamation point, providing a grim reminder of struggles for gender equality a century ago.

The film’s focus is working-class women in England around World War I, and the organized fight for the right to vote. In post-modern feminist circles, this story opens young eyes to very real issues, and reignites women’s voices.

Screenwriter Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”) uses historical figures, such as leader Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep in a cameo) and martyr for the cause Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), along with fictional characters.

Carey Mulligan’s Maud Watts is a composite of downtrodden females, a marginalized lower-class laundress whose eyes are awakened to the fight for rights by a fellow co-worker Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff). That raises the hackles of her conservative husband (Ben Whishaw) and the ire of local police officer Steed (Brendan Gleeson).

And that depository for all that is wrong is problematic for this sincere project. The anguish that Maud endures is so awful — in the workplace, at home, and in the streets — and makes her an intense symbol for oppression, but it stretches believability.

Encouraged by leaders of the Women’s Social and Political Union, the ladies draw people to their plight through acts of civil disobedience, not mere words. The response, in return, is increasingly brutal. Imprisonment and inhumane treatment result. But they don’t stop until their mission is accomplished, and in one defiant swoop, their message is heard.

Performances

Mulligan’s work is strong, but Helena Bonham Carter’s impassioned portrait of pharmacist Edith Ellyn is striking. Carter’s recent film work has been so flamboyant (Harry Potter series, “Sweeney Todd,” “Les Miserables”) that it’s nice to see her showcase her dramatic muscle, as “The Wings of a Dove” promised in 1997).

Duff and Press shine in their pivotal supporting roles as foot soldiers in the movement.

‘Suffragette’

  • CAST: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Meryl Streep, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Anne-Marie Duff, Natalie Press
  • DIRECTOR: Sarah Gavron
  • 106 minutes
  • Rated PG-13 (some intense violence, thematic elements, brief strong language and partial nudity”
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