“Deeds, not words,” goes the refrain of “Suffragette,” a stolidly well-meaning tribute to the handful of brave women who realized that polite, law-abiding protests weren’t going to get them very far in the battle for voting rights in early 20th-century Britain. But while it boasts no shortage of dramatic activity as it lays bare the challenges and consequences of civil disobedience, this collaboration between director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan doesn’t exactly uphold that mantra, insofar as it never seems to deviate from a neatly pre-packaged script of its own. As a lowly wife and mother slowly grabbing hold of her difficult destiny, Carey Mulligan gives an affecting, skillfully modulated performance that lends a certain coherence to this assemblage of real-life incidents, composite characters, noble sentiments, stirring speeches and impeccable production values — all marshaled in service of a picture whose politics prove rather more commendable than its artistry.
With an awards push for Mulligan likely in the works — plus a sort of Good Prestige-Drama Seal of Approval in the form of Meryl Streep, giving a drive-by cameo as the pioneering women’s activist Emmeline Pankhurst — this Focus Features release (opening Oct. 23 Stateside) could rally a modest commercial following, particularly if it succeeds in catching the mood of the moment. Heading into a season of welcome and widespread protest about the ongoing gender imbalance in moviemaking as well as politics, the timing arguably couldn’t be better for a female-written, female-directed drama about those who risked and lost everything in a not-so-distant era of even greater indifference and hostility to women’s rights.
The woman who loses the most in “Suffragette” is Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), the real-life militant activist who famously stepped in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913 — an act of fatal self-sacrifice that galvanized the women’s suffrage movement and made headlines around the world. That tragedy is duly dramatized here, although Davison herself remains a mostly peripheral figure: While Morgan is no stranger to biopics of Englishwomen in crisis (“The Iron Lady,” “The Invisible Woman”), she has constructed her screenplay around 24-year-old Maud Watts (Mulligan), a fictional amalgam of many different women, and one who serves the traditional narrative function of wide-eyed newcomer and audience stand-in.
When we first meet Maud in London circa 1912, she’s laboring under grueling sweatshop conditions at the laundry where her late mother worked before her, and where her husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), also works. The place is a hell on earth, full of heavy equipment, scalding chemicals and run-of-the-mill repression and abuse; those girls fortunate enough to avoid an early grave aren’t so lucky when it comes to the leering sexual advances of their boss, Mr. Taylor (Geoff Bell). But the laundry has also become a hotbed of subversive activity for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), who have enacted a brick-hurling campaign of civil disobedience on Pankhurst’s orders. Their members include Maud’s spirited and resilient co-worker, Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), who encourages her to attend one of their meetings.
But Maud, a well-behaved wife and model employee, is initially reluctant to join the ranks of the “filthy Panks,” as they’re derisively called in public — until, by a twist of fate, she winds up in a position to testify in Parliament before the chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller), who is considering a voting-rights bill amendment that would favor the women’s cause. When the prime minister rejects the amendment, Maud’s righteous indignation is decisively awakened, though it’s almost just as quickly snuffed out when she’s caught up in a violent street protest and spends a week in prison alongside Violet and Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), a pharmacist and self-described “soldier” who distinguishes herself as the most frighteningly committed of the group. Maud’s association with the suffragettes (a more militant and vastly less socially acceptable faction than the suffragists) is met with shame and horror by Sonny, who, like almost all the husbands we see, do their part to help the police by keeping their wives in line.
In a way that recalls such feminist-crusader dramas as “Norma Rae” and “North Country,” Maud gradually transforms from meek, unassuming novice to determined pillar of the cause. She initially caves in to pressure from Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson, all avuncular menace), who tries to appeal to her reason and her cynicism by suggesting that nothing will ever change: “You’re only fodder for a battle none of you can win.” But Maud’s first incarceration turns out not be her last, and Mulligan does an especially good job of conveying her character’s indecisiveness, her finely etched features softening and hardening at will. But by the time Maud attends a top-secret WSPU rally featuring a rare personal appearance by Pankhurst herself — enter Streep, declaiming in high, fluttery tones from a balcony — it’s more than clear where our heroine’s true allegiance will ultimately lie.
Gavron, directing her first narrative feature since 2007’s “Brick Lane,” has the look of the period down cold: Edu Grau shoots in meticulously muted colors and grottily realist textures, while excellent visual contributions come courtesy of production designer Alice Normington and costume designer Jane Petrie (who nails the movement’s long dresses and broad-brimmed hats, as well as the more humdrum daily wardrobe of the working class). And Morgan’s well-researched script integrates intriguing details from the period, including Steed’s then-revolutionary use of advanced cameras to track and identify suffragettes, in scenes that play like something out of an Edwardian-era spy thriller; the women’s carefully coordinated hunger strikes behind bars, which led to ghastly forced feedings by the prison staff (Davison was subjected to 49 of them); and the bombing of Lloyd George’s house, a terrorist act that tests loyalties even within the movement, and one in which we see Maud actively taking part.
But notwithstanding the righteous fury of its central characters, radical gestures and anarchic impulses are in short supply in “Suffragette,” which has an awful lot of fascinating information to convey and only the most familiar tools with which to convey it (an unmemorable Alexandre Desplat score among them). It’s a movie of stultifying, spell-it-all-out conventionality, where character arcs and history lessons dovetail with the sort of tidiness that refutes the messy complexity of actual history, and where inspiring an audience means never having to provoke or challenge it. For if Gavron’s film is what used to be called a “women’s picture” in the righteous, rabble-rousing sense, it also turns out to be one in the tearjerking, 1940s-Hollywood sense — a three-Panky melodrama in which the issue of female suffrage comes in second to the spectacle of female suffering.
One of the film’s key points is that those suffragettes who went the farthest for their cause were those willing to lose everything, and Maud’s composite status enables the filmmakers to more or less have their way with her — driving a wedge between her and Sonny; denying her access to her young son, George (an adorable Adam Michael Dodd); turning her into a social pariah; and more or less ensuring that she truly has nothing left to lose. Such outrages did of course befall women with tragic frequency, but the one-damned-thing-after-another manner in which they befall Maud Watts feels manufactured to the point of manipulative. It’s no small testament to Mulligan’s performance that she manages to be entirely convincing, even when the same can’t be said about her character’s increasingly desperate fall from grace.