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Suffragette

In century-ago London, women are getting angry. They want the right to vote but it is not forthcoming. They make noise. They create chaos. They get attention.

Suffragette, a grim tale of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) and her cohorts, shows the actions taken to get government leaders to acknowledge their demands. When Maud witnesses suffragettes throwing rocks to break store windows, she gets fired up and joins in.

She works in a laundry, where she and other female coworkers are subject to verbal and physical abuse by their male bosses. These men are not happy with her activism. She’s married with a young son at home. But her involvement in the cause leads to the breakup of her family and, ultimately, incarceration. (Ben Whishaw is Mr. Watts.)

While the film is inspired by real-life events, most of the characters including Maud Watts are fictional. Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) is a real person who is the leader of the movement. Because Pankhurst lives her life in hiding, Streep’s presence in the movie is fleetingly brief. Other women in the cast include Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Natalie Press and Romola Garai.

Like certain other period films, Suffragette is generally devoid of color. Clothing is mostly black and white, settings are dark and poorly lighted and sepia tones are occasionally employed by director Sarah Gavron. (The film was written by a woman, Abi Morgan.)

It’s always great to see Brendan Gleason in a movie; in Suffragette he’s a police inspector who has several conversations with Maud. He’s concerned that the movement will generate a martyr, perhaps from the hunger strike Maud stages while in prison. In the end, it is a martyr who becomes a touchstone for change in women’s suffrage in the U.K.

Sadly, Suffragette disappoints on many levels. The second-class status of women is plainly stated but the depths of anguish this condition causes in not deeply explored. Compared to, say, Norma Rae or Selma, Suffragette fails to build empathy for those who are beaten down. Feminists may experience strong emotional connections to these characters, but it’s likely a general audience will not.

Then again, I am a male. As Maud Watts points out, half the people in the world are female. I found the storytelling less than compelling but, hey, women sometimes have different viewpoints from men. (Editor’s note: “sometimes?????”) Certainly, women’s rights is an important issue, but I call Suffragette a nice try that falls short.

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