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Arts & Life

In A Firmly Dour London, 'Suffragette' Immerses You In The Struggle

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courtesy of Focus Features
Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), and Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) in 'Suffragette.'

Sarah Gavron's Suffragette sets up a world of grim-faced people dressed in mostly dark nondescript clothing, walking along desperate streets. It's London in 1912. Buildings block the sunlight so that it rarely hits where people live and work.

The film opens in a suffocating laundry, the excruciating conditions make it plain that both working class women and men are worked to death, treated like mules. Brutality is the norm; the boss routinely rapes the women who can't complain without losing their jobs.

Not long after the laundry scenes, cops on the street are attacking women who have gathered peacefully to demand the vote. For many women, that ended the idea of peaceful demonstration.

I only knew of ferocious British suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst from Mary Poppins, when the mother sings her https://youtu.be/Kvk1NZDFvZU" target="_blank">suffragette song, "Take heart! For Missus Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again!" As a character in Suffragette, Mrs. Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) is an elusive figure. She hides from the police only to pop into sight to offer a quick and rousing speech to the women of London.

The movie concentrates on Maude Watts (Carey Mulligan), a young woman who's worked in that laundry since she was six. Almost by accident, Maude hears Pankhurst speak, is beaten to the ground by police, and from there on is slowly radicalized.

For a mainstream movie, Suffragette is a pretty raw melodrama. You don't forget the early scene of the cops wading into the crowd of excited but peaceful women. They ram their clubs into women's stomachs, swing at their arms and backs, heads and faces. Unhappily, blacks are often shown as they're beaten in civil rights dramas, and there's all sorts of gore in war films and action pictures. But this is a new sight -- armed men whaling away on unarmed women. The clubbings can feel sexual, and with every thrust of a nightstick, you find yourself accepting the increasingly militant tactics of Mrs. Pankhurst.

That's how melodrama works. It makes the audience bear witness to innocent people being pummeled, and with every blow wanting the women to strike back, until throwing rocks through windows and blowing up mailboxes feels reasonable, even restrained, under the circumstances.

It feels like a tightening noose; situations grow progressively tense and there's less room for the women to move. The men with power are appalled at the thought that the women might someday want to be members of parliament or judges. Poorer men, like Maud's husband, feel shamed and cornered by the activism of their women.

To revisit Mary Poppins, https://youtu.be/0mg4NtME0CU" target="_blank">the father sings, "It's grand to be an Englishman in 1910! King Edward's on the throne, it's the age of men!" He doesn't know it, but he's fighting a losing battle to the women and to the humanity that's creeping up inside him. The men in Suffragette don't know they're losing either, but they are also not the types to take their children to work at the bank -- or sing songs of any kind.

The downside to Suffragette is that it's fallen prey to the current mind-choking trend of a hand-held camera looking right up the noses of the characters and then jumping all over the place when some kind of activity kicks up. Sometimes, when the shot is jammed tight on Maud's face, it's intimate, and it puts you inside the confusion of a young working class woman realizing that she's becoming part of historic change. Other times, the frenetic camera smears the action and makes it unintelligible, and the movie looks like action pictures at the multiplex.

Mostly, Suffragette shows real courage. The fight between the suffragettes and the entrenched powers and social patterns of England is just that – a fight. It's violent and it hurts. Women are cast out of their homes and families; the stakes are tremendous, and the movie shows it.

Suffragette does cop out at the end, just a bit. It doesn't quite seal the deal, but it comes close.

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