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The original riot girls

Suffragette offers a CliffsNotes version of the early women’s rights movement

Someday, a movie will be worthy of Carey Mulligan again. An Education deserved her; little else has, though her sharp performance in Inside Llewyn Davis was a highlight. Mulligan is so delicate looking, so fresh-faced, that filmmakers either underestimate her or don’t know what to do with her. Like Brie Larson, so prickly and good in Room, she hides a steeliness behind wide eyes. I want to see her play a superhero, but she’d probably get cast as the sidekick. Which is basically her role in Suffragette, a well-intentioned movie in the familiar browns and greys of the serious British period film. 

Mulligan plays Maud Watts, a (fictional) participant in the British women’s suffrage movement. Maud, a young laundress, notices everything: the sly look cast by her coworker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), who’s joined the suffragettes; the way the boss’ wandering eye has turned to Violet’s daughter; the shifts on the face of her husband, Sonny (the perpetually underused Ben Whishaw), when she comes home later and later, getting more and more involved in winning women the right to vote.

Suffragette is admirable on several levels. For starters, it’s a movie about women and women’s issues, and despite the fact that it’s more than 100 years after the events on which Suffragette is based, we still don’t get very many of those — let alone written and directed by women (Abi Morgan and Sarah Gavron, respectively). Maud’s deeply working-class roots put classism hand in hand with sexism; when Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson) tells Maud that no one cares what girls like her say, he’s erasing the voice of every woman who lacks not just the vote but the freedoms bestowed by money and class. Maud doesn’t matter on any level. She doesn’t even matter to her husband, once she fully invests in the struggle. He’s much more concerned with not feeling shamed by her actions than he is with her equality. 

So why am I so lukewarm on Suffragette? In short, it just doesn’t add up. So many of the pieces are there, from the performances (Helena Bonham Carter is perfect as a fiercely feminist pharmacist) to the costumes (sweeping coats for everyone) to the refusal to tie everything up in a neat bow. But it feels like CliffsNotes: Real-life characters are shoehorned into a story that’s not built for them (Meryl Streep swans in as Emmeline Pankhurst, speechifies, and swans back out again), while the largely fictional or composite main characters are so white that The Stranger’s Ijeoma Oluo opted not to review the film, saying, “I’m no longer going to legitimize films that refuse to acknowledge the existence of people of color.”

The handheld camerawork feels modern and distracting, and the scenes that verge on action are often a muddle; our heroine stands by and watches in the movie’s climactic sequence. There’s a point there — that you don’t have to be the one in the news to matter to your movement — but the movie fades to a close so soon afterwards that Maud still feels like a sidekick. I left the theater wishing I’d just read a book on the subject instead. (Bijou Art Cinema)