HBO's starry suffragette drama, "Iron Jawed Angels," latches on to a worthy historical subject and then hopes noble intentions will be enough to carry the day. Alas, there's no such luck in this talky, melodramatic overview of the dawn of equal rights for women in America.

HBO’s starry suffragette drama, “Iron Jawed Angels,” latches on to a worthy historical subject and then hopes noble intentions will be enough to carry the day. Alas, there’s no such luck in this talky, melodramatic overview of the dawn of equal rights for women in America. Gussied up with a comically anachronistic use of period music on the soundtrack and flashy, MTV-style montage sequences, pic misguidedly strives — but ultimately fails — to belie its instincts as an assembly-line movie-of-the-week.

Sundance premiere was little more than an expensive commercial for its upcoming cable bow. Opening scenes set in Philadelphia in the fall of 1912 introduce a growing ideological divide within the National American Woman Suffrage Assn. On one side is, the org’s old guard, embodied by stuffy Carrie Chapman Catt (Angelica Huston), content to allow legislation on women’s suffrage continue on a state-by-state basis. On the other, are the young whippersnappers like Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) and Lucy Burns (Frances O’Connor), who believe a constitutional amendment is the only viable solution, and who are willing to achieve that goal by any means necessary. By virtue of sheer tenacity (or annoyance), they convince Catt (who, in pic’s simplistic view, is more interested in running NAWSA as a ladies’ social club than as an activist group) to allow them to take over the org’s Washington, D.C.-based operations.

In a scene that typifies the pic’s overly reverential tone, Alice, in setting up her ramshackle office, pays homage to the desk that once belonged to NAWSA co-founder Susan B. Anthony, as though the object itself were imbued with some special power.

Credited to four writers, pic’s screenplay, which traces the efforts of Paul, Burns and others up through the eventual 1920 passage of the voting amendment, consists of a torrent of talk on why women should be allowed to vote.

With few exceptions, pic’s female characters are committed activists willing to sacrifice friends and family for what they believe in, while their few male counterparts are either pompous chauvinists or pushover liberal-intellectual types (like Patrick Dempsey as a Washington Post cartoonist who takes a liking to Alice).

Saddled with characters defined only in terms of their political views, Swank and pic’s many other fine actresses can do only so much to prevent their scenes from degenerating into stilted polemical debates. In fact, film’s most memorable character is Emily Leighton (well played by the Canadian actress Molly Parker), a senator’s wife whose initial reluctance to join the movement provides conflict and issues of self-doubt.Directed by German helmer Katja von Garnier, here making her English-lingo debut, pic carries a distinctly modern vibe, not just because of its music and editing, but due to an overall aesthetic in which the names of people and places that are famous now (but weren’t then) are uttered with heavy syllables and pregnant pauses.

Third act, in which World War I threatens to derail the carefully-laid plans of Paul and company, is undeniably more involving than anything that precedes it, particularly in the scenes where the suffragettes brazenly protest President Wilson (Bob Gunton, in a crack impersonation) outside the White House gates to the jeers of passersby.

Climactic stretch, in which the demonstrators are arrested on trumped-up charges and subsequently engage in a prison hunger strike is also harrowing, even if Garnier’s scenes of violent torture and force-feedings come perilously close to resembling a parody of “The Shawshank Redemption” or “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Pic’s visuals carry a polished luster courtesy of ace lenser Robbie Greenberg; period sets and costumes are handsome.

Iron Jawed Angels

Production

An HBO Films presentation of a Spring Creek production. Executive producers, Paula Weinstein, Len Amato, Robin Forman, Lydia Dean Pilcher. Co-producers, Laura McCorkindale, Denise Pinckley, Jim Bigwood. Directed by Katja von Garnier. Screenplay, Sally Robinson, Eugenia Bostwick Singer, Raymond Singer, Jennifer Friedes; story, Friedes.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Robbie Greenberg; editor, Hans Funck; music, Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil; production designer, Norris Spencer; costume designer, Caroline Harris; sound, Ed Novick; assistant director, Verbe Borge; casting, Janet Hirshenson, Jane Jenkins, Liz Marks. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 16, 2004. Running time: 123 MIN.

Cast

Alice Paul - Hilary Swank Lucy Burns - Frances O'Connor Inez Mulholland - Julia Ormond Carrie Chapman Catt - Anjelica Huston Emily Leighton - Molly Parker Ben Weissman - Patrick Dempsey Doris Stevens - Laura Fraser Mabel Vernon - Brooke Smith Ruza Wenclawska - Vera Farmiga Anna Howard Shaw - Lois Smith Harriot Blatch - Margo Martindale Senator Leighton - Joseph Adams Ida Wells-Barnett - Adilah Barnes Mrs. Paul - Carrie Snodgress Woodrow Wilson - Bob Gunton
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