2015, PG-13, 106 min. Directed by Sarah Gavron. Starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Meryl Streep, Natalie Press, Romola Garai, Finbar Lynch.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 6, 2015

With little more novelty than a chapter in a standard-issue history book, Suffragette soldiers through its story about the fight waged by British women during the early decades of the 20th century to win the right to vote. It’s an interesting and, yes, important story to tell, especially in this moment of demand for more movies to be made about women and by women. Yet I fear the groundswell may be tamped in the wake of too many paint-by-numbers pictures like Suffragette and the recent Freeheld, which despite their female protagonists are narratively wan and disappointing.

As the film’s central character Maud Watts, Carey Mulligan delivers an engaging performance, her face providing an elegant canvas for conveying Maud’s joys, fears, and bewilderment. Maud is a fictional character, a working-class woman who is also a wife and mother, whom we meet in 1912 just as Emmeline Pankhurst (Streep, in a brief cameo) is encouraging the women’s suffrage movement to engage in acts of civil disobedience to further the cause since polite campaigning had clearly proved ineffective. Maud has been employed in the same laundry since she was a child, and has been a model worker who’s moved up the ranks to forewoman while also enduring sexual abuse from the boss. But she gradually becomes radicalized through her friendship with Violet Miller (Duff), another laundress who encourages Maud to come to suffrage meetings. Maud’s presence at a gathering causes her to be thrown into jail for a week, and then be evicted from her home by her mortified husband (Whishaw) and forbidden to see her young son. Eventually, this amalgamated character becomes a friend and co-conspirator of the real-life Emily Wilding Davison, and is with her at the moment Davison famously martyrs herself for the cause.

Despite the vividness of the movement and the philosophical underpinnings of the cause and its tactical shifts, Suffragette unfolds in a sequentially predictable manner. There is little surprise in the story structure and even less dimensionality to the characters. Screenwriter Abi Morgan, who also penned Streep’s Oscar-winning turn as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, delivers a rote rendition of world-shaking if underexamined events. A nice touch, however, is the film’s inclusion of new-fangled and smaller photographic cameras which the police use to spy on the women agitators. Director Sarah Gavron elicits nice period detail, especially in regard to the lives and garb of working-class women, and, on occasion, can create shocking moments, as in the scene of the prison force-feeding. Yet, somehow, the film makes these relatively recent events feel like musty history. Anyone game for an Equal Rights Amendment movie? Now there’s a history still waiting to happen.

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Suffragette, Sarah Gavron, Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Meryl Streep, Natalie Press, Romola Garai, Finbar Lynch

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