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Steely Suffragette Wins with Powerful Performances

Steely <i>Suffragette</i> Wins with Powerful Performances

DVD Release Date: February 2, 2016
Theatrical Release Date: October 23, 2015 (limited, U.S.)
Rating: PG-13 (for some intense violence, thematic elements, brief strong language and partial nudity)
Genre: Drama, History
Run Time: 106 minutes
Director: Sarah Gavron
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter, Meryl Streep, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson

For years, British women had tried reasonable, peaceable tactics to obtain the right to vote. For years, the men in charge had mocked, patronized, bullied, abused, and shooed the “weaker sex” out of their way. And so it came to pass that women were finally pushed past their breaking point—and that’s when things turned ugly.

From our privileged position more than 100 years in the future, it’s difficult to grasp what it was like to be a woman in 1912 England, especially a working-class woman like Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan, Inside Llewyn Davis). Maud works long hours in a laundry that makes modern sweatshops look positively luxurious. After work she heads home to care for her husband and young son, much like today’s working moms, minus any modern conveniences—and minus any rights. Maud’s sleazy boss at the laundry can do anything he likes (and he does). Her husband (Ben Whishaw, Paddington) has complete control over her wages, her child, everything. He's not a bad man, but you know what they say about the corrupting effect of absolute power. Still, Maud makes the best of things; she keeps her head down and tries to stay out of trouble.

But trouble has a way of finding Maud. She stumbles into a protest, finds her voice, and starts hanging out with women who dare to think they deserve a say in what happens to them. Maud is encouraged in all this by co-worker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff, Closed Circut), a woman who preaches the suffragette cause with evangelistic fervor. They’re aided and abetted by a rather fascinating female pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter, Cinderella), whose husband is one of the few men on the side of the suffragettes. And then there’s the fiery leader of the entire movement, Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, Into the Woods), whose motto "Deeds, not words" sparks the kinds of activities that get women thrown in jail.

They’re strong women played by strong actors, each one beautifully portrayed. Mulligan is particularly watchable; you can see the glint of idealism growing in her eyes long before she gets the gumption to snap at a male interrogator, “We’re half the human race. You can’t stop us all.”

I won't spoil the story by spilling any more of Maud’s adventures, but suffice it to say that things do not go well for her. Her journey from innocent bystander to front-line soldier in the Suffragette army is as inevitable as it is heartbreaking. One audience member commented, “It was hard to watch,” and it is, but that’s part of the reason to watch it. Suffragette is not exactly a chick flick, but it is a movie women should see, preferably in groups because there’s so much to discuss after the movie. It begs the questions: What would you do in their place? How far would you go for something you believe in? Is violence ever justified? Did Maud’s husband know about... oh, but that would be a spoiler.

As you'd expect, this is a very female-centric movie, but there are some strong male characters, particularly Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson, Calvary), the policeman called in to handle the rebellion. He’s tough, smart, and one of the few men who doesn’t underestimate women. He’s not above using harsh tactics, but there is a tiny spark of compassion lurking under his cold-hearted exterior.

I wanted Suffragette to be an amazing movie. While it has many things to commend it—an excellent cast, a gripping story, a deliciously moody setting, and a heart-stopping climax—somehow it just didn't draw me in the way I hoped it would. I felt like wrenching moments of raw emotion were followed by long scenes where everything sort of stopped, leaving the audience to twiddle our thumbs until the plot woke up and started moving again. To be fair, this sentiment was not shared by the young women seated next to me, who loved the whole thing. Either way, I stand by my earlier statement that it's a movie women should see—and it wouldn't hurt men to watch it, either.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol: none noted
  • Language/Profanity: Some British insults (“bleeding cakehole”), a b-word or so, and possibly an f-word but with the accents it was hard to tell.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Shirtless man shown briefly from the back; a woman’s bare bottom shown briefly during a prison scene; man shown forcing himself on a young girl and later groping other women.
  • Violent/Frightening/Intense: Rocks are thrown through windows; women are brutally beaten by police; several bombs are put to use with varying degrees of destruction; a woman is forcibly fed by having a hose shoved down her nose; an accident at a racetrack results in fatalities; a child is torn from his mother’s arms.

*Published 11/5/2015