The place is London and the year is 1912, a somewhat forgotten point in history when women, in an effort to obtain the right to vote, resorted to violence. That's the backdrop for "Suffragette," directed by Sarah Gavron from a script by Abi Morgan ("The Iron Lady"). It's a familiar story of oppression, radicalization and triumph that has been told from many viewpoints -- black, gay, Latino, science-fictional -- though very rarely by women.
Carey Mulligan plays Maud Watts, a fictional woman inserted into real events. A laundry worker with the burns to prove it, Maud finds herself drawn to Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), a sassy and proudly disreputable woman with connections to the suffragist underground. Maud tries to wade in slowly, but soon she's fully immersed. First come meetings led by pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), then an inspiring glimpse of the outlaw Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, very briefly) and, finally, a turn to Anarchist-style bombings.
It's a handsome-looking film with a very fine cast, but "Suffragette" feels underwhelming. The characters are too pat -- Ben Whishaw plays Maud's disapproving husband, Sonny, while Brendan Gleeson glowers as Inspector Arthur Steed, a kind of early J. Edgar Hoover -- and the story usually goes where you most expect. Occasionally, "Suffragette" paints a larger picture of the way revolutions and regimes alike can lose their moral high ground. (A scene of Maud being painfully force-fed while on hunger-strike carries a whiff of torture.) Mostly, though, "Suffragette" leads Maud down a well-worn narrative path.
"Suffragette" builds toward a well-publicized death (at the 1913 Epsom Derby attended by King George V) that led, finally, to a turning point in public sympathy for women's suffrage. The facts of that event were murky, and as handled by the movie they remain so. "Suffragette" wants us to cheer through our tears at this point, but the ending feels sudden and somewhat confusing.
"Suffragette" closes with a list of countries organized by the year they granted women the vote -- some shockingly recently. That list makes its point more succinctly, and with more surprises, than the movie does.