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Steffan Hill/Focus Features

MOVIE REVIEW
Suffragette (2015)

Watching movies in school — on a television borrowed from the AV closet with a bunch of kids chatting and heckling and teasing each other — is a pretty good test of how a film stands. When the movie is good it can rise above this setting. But movies in school also serve another, broader purpose; they make tangible the stories kids ignore in their history books. They enable the kids to feel what it would have been like to be alive at that time and in that place, to feel their feelings and understand how the people who lived 100 years ago were not so different from us right now. And if a movie is really good, it makes the kids think about how its story is relevant now. On those levels, “Suffragette” succeeds admirably.

Maud Watts (a quietly determined Carey Mulligan) has worked in an East London laundry literally all her life. After her mother died when she was four and a series of events the movie indirectly but clearly signposts, she becomes the wife to Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and the mother of a delightful little boy when the film begins. But through her friendship with a new colleague, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), she is drawn into the world of the suffragettes: women protesting for the right to vote through civil disobedience and crimes against property. Maud is originally horrified, but then one thing leads to another.

The movie agrees with its characters, which is refreshing; and politics are debated only through the viewpoint of the women’s experiences. Pharmacist Edith (Helena Bonham Carter) was not allowed to attend medical school but is the one who looks after the patients, despite it being her husband’s name over the door. When local politician Alice’s (Romola Garai) husband refuses to bail other suffragettes out of jail, Alice can do nothing because she doesn’t have control over her own money. When Violet shows up covered in bruises because of another beating by her husband, her friends can do no more than offer sympathy. The misery of Maud’s childhood is never mentioned directly, but there is a scene where all we can look at are her scars. And when Sonny puts his foot down with Maud, it’s her little boy who suffers the most of all.

Writer Abi Morgan and director Sarah Gavron (who previously collaborated on “Brick Lane”) have made a film about how a respectable young person is radicalized, step by step, into believing in a cause bigger than herself. It also shows, through Maud’s treatment by the character of policeman Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson), how consequences can snowball to the point where a person can believe she does not have any other choice. Ms. Gavron seems to have followed closely the shooting style of Tom Hooper, another director making big waves with prestige period pieces. Alice Normington’s production design was clearly inspired by the suffragette colors of purple, green and white, and uses a muted template which allows the grinding poverty most of the characters live in to bleed all over the screen. There is also hardly any music, except when women are singing at various protests. But the sound is handled as if this were a horror film, which is surprisingly effective.

The main cast and Meryl Streep, who has a small but vital cameo part, posed in T-shirts quoting Emmeline Pankhurst, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave,” which caused a small furor. Of course Ms. Gavron should have ensured the film reflected the diversity of London life at the time; it certainly wasn’t 100 percent white as the film shows. But the movie does a good job of acting as a primer on many class and gender issues, which is what it set out to do. Certainly around the world there are women like Maud, born to thankless, endless work and on whom nobody is wasting much education. If these women see this film, which explicitly calls out Saudi Arabia at the end, it might help them change how they think about their lives and their choices. And it’s truly difficult to argue against that.

It is also fascinating that there was terrible difficulty in casting the male roles since they are all supporting parts. Of the five main male roles, two of the actors are Irish and two more are openly gay. We have work to do on many levels.

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