In “Suffragette,” Carey Mulligan returns to the screen in a performance worthy of a Best Actress nomination. She’ll have plenty of competition. Unlike previous years, 2015 has produced a slew of contenders in the leading lady category: Brie Larson in “Room,” Emily Blunt in “Sicario,” Charlize Theron in “Fury Road,” not to mention numerous others already garnering buzz.
Mulligan stands out for her willingness to stand for something (feminism, of course), and for her subtle tracking of Maud Watts from mother, wife and laundress to bomb-toting freedom fighter. A composite character of many who fought for their rights during that era, Watts makes for a relatable narrator in early 1900s England, when workplace abuse, political subjugation, and police brutality were the norm for women, particularly those fighting the good fight. Ann-Marie Duff is delightfully irascible as Violet Miller, Maud’s co-worker and the one who initially recruits her to the cause, and Helena Bonham Carter exudes confidence as the real doctor in a clinic ran by her husband.
The much ballyhooed appearance by Meryl Streep as the imitable Emmeline Pankhurst is just that, an appearance. She’s in the movie for no more than five minutes. Regardless, Streep’s presence goes a long way towards conveying the power of this singular woman in a short amount of time, a born leader who commanded an entire army of suffragettes despite rarely commandeering the front lines. As a gruff inspector making their life a living hell, Brendan Gleeson is typecast as the defacto villain, a veteran cop tasked by the government to arrest these women whenever possible. Rounding out the ensemble cast is Ben Wishaw as Maud’s husband, a weak man who can’t take the public scrutiny once his wife joins the movement, and the harbinger of Maud’s estrangement from her son. It’s unfortunate that such a great cast be surrounded by a pedestrian narrative, where high melodrama and redundant arrests substitute for conflict. Well-intentioned as it is, “Suffragette” plays more like a history lesson than a thorough examination of its subject.
Directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan, it pains me to criticize their work for fear of mansplaining my way through its flaws, but material this important shouldn’t be this predictable. There are no surprises had until an ending coda that lays bare the disturbing recency of women’s rights around the world, so it’s a testament to Mulligan’s performance that “Suffragette” mildly succeeds in spite of itself.