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Suffragette - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

Suffragette has its minor flaws, but much like Straight Outta Compton, it represents so much more than just a movie based on history, it demands to be seen. To be sure, Straight Outta Compton has far more immediate impact, but that is largely because it represents far more recent history, events that still exist in living people's memories. Not so with Suffragette, which tells the story of just one group of women -- in working-class Britain -- fighting for the right to vote in the early 20th century.

This is yet another historical film with topical ties to the present day, illustrating the evolution of how women have long been treated, how far they have come in the past century, and how much work remains to be done. Still, although Suffragette opens in 1912 and thus represents a story from over a hundred years ago, it boggles the mind how long it took for women to be granted the right to vote, in what today we consider progressive countries. It didn't happen in the United States until 1920. In Britain, 1928. Suffragette's end credits begin with a timeline of years women were granted the right to vote around the world, including France in 1944 and Italy in 1945! Turns out the U.S. was actually ahead of the curve on this one. The most recent on the list? Saudia Arabia: "promises women the right to vote" in 2015. The fact that it's unsurprising makes it no less disgusting.

Women's suffrage was a literally decades-long fight, in both America and in Europe, which naturally means there is a ton of stories to be told. It would be great to see more, especially about, say, American suffragette Susan B. Anthony. But in this case, director Sarah Gavron focuses on a fictionalized group of downtrodden laundry workers fired up by the leadership of a few nonfiction personalities, including militant suffragette Emily Davidson (played by Natalie Press) and hugely influential suffragette movement leader Emmeline Pankhurst. Pankhurst is played by Meryl Streep, who gets prominent billing even though this is the smallest part she's had in a major motion picture in recent memory. Pankhurst shows up to speak at a secret rally, addresses a crowd from a balcony, and when the gathering is raided by police, is secretly whisked away to a car out the back. There's hardly time for anything more than Streep sharing yet another accent -- which, as always, is convincing -- but her presence does make a difference to the impact of the film.

The story, however, focuses on the fictional Maud Watts (the always wonderful Carey Mulligan), the young laundry worker systematically caught up in the movement after witnessing suffragettes throwing rocks through store windows. She meets longtime activist Edith (Helena Bonham Carter, playing a fictionalized character reportedly still inspired by real-life suffragette Edith Margaret Garrud), who brings Maud into the fold. They are following the advice of Pankhurst, who tells them that what gets things done are "deeds, not words." The activists are pointed in their mission to destroy property rather than hurt people, right down to bombing a politician's unoccupied home. It could be easy to be judgmental of these strategies, but then, when women were ignored and belittled for decades, one can hardly blame them for turning to more desperate measures.

Maud has a young son and an increasingly frustrated husband (Ben Wishaw), who both in essence become part of the sacrifice other suffragettes keep referring to as essential to the cause. Although Maud herself is fictionalized, her experiences ring true: a husband shamed by his wife being arrested multiple times, who kicks her out of his home and eventually puts their son up for adoption because he can't take care of the child himself. Maud's story, exemplified with characteristic nuance by Carey Mulligan, is heartbreaking, and it represents the experience of millions of women. She winds up speaking before a government committee in an effort to get women's right to vote considered for law -- because the woman originally slated to speak has been beaten to the point of inability to present herself -- where she mentions the far worse working conditions for women than men, and how much less they get paid for the same work. These are inequities that women still face today, but because of the efforts of women like Maud, women are now a widely recognized voter bloc that cannot be ignored.

Some of Suffragette is admittedly characteristic movie contrivance, including a hardline private investigator (Brendan Gleeson) who eventually develops a conscience, but the performances and story alike are compelling enough to render that inconsequential. This is a movie that is refreshing in nearly every way when it comes to women, particularly as represented by the film industry, which to this day is overstuffed with male-centric stories, casts, and characters. It was directed and written by women (Abi Morgan also wrote Shame and The Iron Lady). All of the principal cast members and most of the supporting cast are women. It's a story about women, told by women, about arguably the most important women's issue of the past century, without being preachy or heavy-handed. The life these women were forced to live speaks for itself. We're talking about prior history, centuries, of men having ownership over both their wives and their children.

This movie has made barely more than $1 million in the U.S. and that says something too. To be fair, this is actually a British and not a Hollywood film, but still, more Americans should be seeing it. These are vital stories, and this one, while not told perfectly, is told well, with solid performances. That said, one can only hope we can get an equivalent tale of the American women's suffrage movement, more relevant to American audiences. Hell, just getting a lot more solid movies that give American actresses more work and representation would be nice.

Carey Mulligan (center) shouts with her early-20th-century British cohorts in SUFFRAGETTE.

Overall: B+
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