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Suffragette

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Starring Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep

A magnificent period piece about the wom en’s suffrage movement in England in the early 20th century. Many people may have forgotten that the fight for women’s rights once involved the same danger as other battles for equality, like the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. This eye-opening and fierce drama is certain to attract Oscar attention.

The film marks an impressive performance by Carey Mulligan, who follows her role in Far From the Madding Crowd with an even stronger turn here. The story mixes fictional characters with real historical personages, including British feminist leader Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep in a small but vivid role). Mulligan’s Maud Watts is a composite character. She starts as a hassled woman working in a laundry factory, who has a husband and young son and no time for any political activities. But when she sees a fellow worker at a rock-throwing demonstration, her curiosity is aggravated, and she gradually becomes more deeply involved in the suffrage movement, even though her family is devastated by her growing militancy.

The film takes a little while to get going, but Suffragette builds power as it demonstrates that these women were not gentle protesters. They were angry and sometimes violent, and they were arrested and often treated brutally while incarcerated. The shocking climactic scene, which is taken from history, reminds us that all struggles for equality involve intense sacrifices. Mulligan’s remarkably expressive face conveys the character’s profound but always credible journey from battered victim to articulate crusader. But the actress also captures the terrible human costs of any unyielding political battle. Several of the other performers also deserve high marks. Helena Bonham Carter gives her most restrained and affecting performance in years as a pharmacist who is also on the front lines. And there is a heartbreaking turn by Anne-Marie Duff as the fellow factory worker who first incites Maud to activism but then finds the battles too dangerous to continue.

The male characters are not all so sharply drawn. Ben Whishaw is a fine actor, but he’s saddled with a rather one-dimensional role as Maud’s uncomprehending husband. Brendan Gleeson brings more dimension to his role as a police inspector. The film ends with a series of statistics on how long it took many countries to grant women the right to vote. But the achievement of the film is that it goes way beyond facts and figures in the fight for equality that has not quite reached its final victory.

Rated M 8 out of 10

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