Herstory lesson

A passable retelling of early days of suffrage movement

Ends tonight, Nov. 19. Starring Carey Mulligan, Brendan Gleeson, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep. Directed by Sarah Gavron. Cinemark 14. Rated PG-13.
Rated 3.0

Suffragette has strong and perhaps irresistible appeal in several respects: modern socio-political history, still-volatile issues of class and gender, an impressive cast. The actual onscreen results, however, are not bad, but also not great.

Written by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, The Invisible Woman) and directed by Sarah Gavron, the film dramatizes women’s struggle for voting rights in Great Britain circa 1912. Morgan’s script incorporates some historical figures, but the main emphasis is on fictional composites of working-class women who were drawn into the most militant aspects of the campaign.

The central focus is on Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a wife and mother who has worked since childhood in the East End sweatshop laundry in which her mother worked (and died young). A co-worker named Violet Miller (a fiery Ann-Marie Duff) is the first to nudge Maud toward the women’s movement. A left-leaning pharmacist named Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) also serves as a key mentor for Maud’s burgeoning activism.

Maud’s circuitous route toward radicalization puts her in the vicinity, however briefly, of some historical figures, including the soon-to-be-martyred Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press) and the great suffragette figurehead, Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep). King George V (Simon Gifford) and politician David Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller) also make brief, notable appearances.

The other key player in Morgan’s scenario is the fictional Arthur Steed (a gruffly avuncular Brendan Gleeson), a police inspector who dutifully oversees the government’s attempts at surveillance and disruption of the suffrage militants. In this telling, he is also a sensitive pragmatist who is capable of seeing the merits of the women’s cause and respecting the embattled courage of Maud and her militant friends.

Suffragette pays its respects to the women of the British suffrage movement, particularly in its portrayal of the heavy human cost paid by the militant women. But much of it plays like a set of big-budget illustrations for a semi-familiar story full of stock sentiments.

As the story of Maud’s radicalization, the film stacks the deck in ways that, ultimately, seem counterproductive. The steadily escalating array of injustices visited upon Maud verges on melodramatic excess and parody. That Maud is reluctant to take radical action until those ever-mounting repressions leave her no other option is one of the film’s most plangent ironies, but those same ironies also give credence to Steed’s pragmatism and caution.

After watching the film this past weekend, someone asked me why Gleeson/Steed had such a prominent role in the story. My answer then was that he is both an agent of cultural and legal oppression and an intelligent official who is starting to respect the feminist cause. And now I’d add that he is central to a film that, intentionally or not, cautions against both radicalism and oppression.