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(2015) *** Pg-13
106 min. Focus Features. Director: Sarah Gavron. Cast: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Natalie Press, Meryl Streep.

/content/films/4850/1.jpgLeading U.K. suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst once rallied her “foot soldiers” with the line “I would rather be a rebel than a slave,” forever distinguishing the aggressive suffragette from the passive-resistant suffragist. The suffragette’s activism to earn women the vote tired of politesse: Pankhurst launched a campaign of civil disobedience that wound up ranging from breaking windows and chaining oneself to railings to destroying mailboxes and committing arson. Sarah Gavron’s film Suffragette at last gives this historical moment a major cinematic treatment, and so earns automatic points for existing.

And the film’s not half-bad, either. The script hails from Abi Morgan, arguably the most in-demand screenwriter in England (she penned The Iron Lady, Shame, and The Invisible Woman, as well as the BBC’s The Hour and Gavron’s previous film, Brick Lane). When Suffragette opens in 1912, London has begun to weather the activists’ angry resistance. We see it all through the eyes of fictional Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a Glass House Laundry worker who learns she should throw stones. Though the iconic Pankhurst—deliberately cast in the personage of iconic actress Meryl Streep—briefly appears as the story’s endangered patron-saint-in-hiding, most of the characters here are historical-fictional composites.

True believers Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), and Emily Davison (Natalie Press) role model for slow-burning Maud, whose sympathies gradually turn into convictions. It’s an overly familiar approach to the narrative of urban political action: take a naïve neophyte and make him or her aware and active. Bingo: dramatic character arc (see Stonewall, Pride, Made in Dagenham…). Though one wishes for a less programmatic, more rigorously factual treatment, this is a narrative film after all, and not a documentary. And so we get true details baked into a historical-fictional loaf, a dramatic staple that’s a bit dull but filling enough.

Morgan resists either demonizing or letting off the hook the men in the picture, most notably Maud’s husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw), who helps to raise their young son George (Adam Michael Dodd), and the Javert-esque Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), but they’re clearly and hearteningly the supporting characters to the frontlined women. Standing in for the typical working-class woman (as opposed to the socialite class of leadership), the relatably ground-level Maud suffers sweatshop conditions, workplace harassment that rises to sexual assault, surveillance, arrest, and torture, learning along the way to harden against tears as she shows great personal courage at great personal cost.

Gavron’s period recreations—rendered in drab low contrast—impress, and Mulligan proves again (after this year’s Far from the Madding Crowd) that she’s grown out of ingénue roles and into a subtler phase of her career. Suffragette revives history we could all stand to know better, and proves most useful in clarifying both what was at stake and the rules of the game of guerilla warfare and police crackdowns.

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