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Movie Review

Suffragettes, struggles, and a little Meryl Streep

Carey Mulligan (center) in “Suffragette.”Steffan Hill/Focus features

“Suffragette” wants to put you on the side of the terrorists. It’s 1912, and to be a woman in England means to have no political voice and thus no social voice. To be a poor woman in England means working in factories and hellholes like the Glasshouse Laundry from the time you’re 7 until the time you die, with no recourse from the pawings of foremen.

All that might change — might — if you had the vote, but you don’t, and the men aren’t about to give it to you. So maybe you march and break shop windows and bomb mailboxes and cut telegraph lines and even blow up a politician’s summer home because you understand the only way to make men listen is to play by their rules of war. “You want me to respect the law?” spits one woman here. “Then make the law respectable.”


The movie, which is both formulaic and powerful, dramatizes a paradigm shift that has been largely smoothed over by history (which is hardly the same as saying all the battles have been won). The idea that women deserve political power — and thus a say in a society of which they make up half — is patently absurd to almost every man in “Suffragette.” What we now take for granted, this earnest, scrupulous, agonized period film wants to remind us seemed unreachable merely a century ago.

The central figure is Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts, one of those working-class laundresses. Maud is married to a kind timidity named Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and has an adoring little son, George (Adam Michael Dodd); early on in “Suffragette” she is radicalized in short sharp shocks through witnessing the brutal treatment of protesters by the police forces of London. Mulligan brings a great deal of sensitivity and spine to the part, and she’s supported by Helena Bonham Carter as a tough middle-class pharmacist (she wasn’t allowed to attend medical school) and by the wonderful, too-little-known British actress Anne-Marie Duff (“Nowhere Boy”) as a laundress initially more militant than Maud.


Yes, Meryl Streep is on hand, too, wheeled out like living statuary in one scene as Emmeline Pankhurst, charismatic leader of the British women’s suffrage movement. Despite Streep’s presence on the posters and in the trailer, she’s here mostly for a credibility the film attains on its own, through a speech-y but deeply felt script by Abi Morgan (“Shame,” “The Iron Lady”) and through headlong period details orchestrated by director Sarah Gavron. You never feel you’re anywhere but 1912 while watching this movie, and you never sense anything less than a soul-crushing social order, even before Maud has her marriage and child taken away.

Meryl Streep in “Suffragette.”Steffan Hill / Focus Features

Above all, “Suffragette” excels at showing how marginalized, even hunted, the hard-line activists became under a punitive and increasingly panicked British government. Brendan Gleeson plays the Scotland Yard inspector tasked with containing this menace to society, and he cuts an intriguing figure — an Irishman who knows from the British boot yet is sworn to uphold the law. “Suffragette” also shows how photographic equipment was introduced to track the movements of the women, allowing a peek at the roots of our current surveillance state.

You do sense a laundry list of agendas being ticked off by the filmmakers, but they’re worthy agendas, such as noting the ways an upper-class suffragette (Romola Garai) can sidestep the treatment visited on the poorer activists while remaining under the thumb of her politician husband (Samuel West). Equal pay and modern notions of intersectionality are nodded at without being explored with any depth; the movie simply has too many fish to fry.


But it riles you up and at times may move you to tears of rage, as Mulligan’s Maud sits opposite cabinet minister Lloyd George in a public hearing and wonders with exhaustion if “there’s another way of living this life.” And then “Suffragette” sends you out to ponder how much has changed and how little, both around the planet and in our own comfortable, progressive society.

Movie Review

★ ★ ★


Directed by Sarah Gavron. Written by Abi Morgan. Starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Meryl Streep. At Kendall Square.

106 minutes. PG-13 (some intense violence, thematic elements, brief strong language, partial nudity).

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.