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Movie Review: 'Suffragette' Has A Weakness For Earnestness And Contrivance


And let's stay in Britain and remember the early years of the 20th century, when women were sacrificing as they fought for the right to vote. A new film, "Suffragette," takes a close look at that piece of history, and here's a review from film critic Kenneth Turan.

KENNETH TURAN, BYLINE: The best thing "Suffragette" has going for it is the performance of its star, Carey Mulligan. The actress is at her most passionate and persuasive as a political innocent, a working wife and mother from London's East End who is radicalized by events that begin in 1912. Mulligan plays the fictional Maud Watts, introduced doing backbreaking labor at an industrial scale laundry while we hear politicians pontificate about how women simply aren't strong enough to be trusted with the vote.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Women should not exercise judgment in political affairs.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) If we allow women to vote, it will mean the loss of social structure.

TURAN: This was the age of real life feminist activist Emmeline Pankhurst, played in a cameo by Meryl Streep, who felt that deeds, not words, would win the day for women.


MERYL STREEP: (As Emmeline) For 50 years, we have labored peacefully to secure the vote for women. We've been ridiculed, battered and ignored. I incite the women in Britain to rebellion.

TURAN: Maud, however, is indifferent to this social movement. She's happily married and the doting mother to a young son, and she's never given the business of voting a second thought. Though its heart is on the side of the angels, "Suffragette" has a weakness for earnestness and contrivance. And before you know it, completely innocent activities have Maud behind bars and well on her way to radicalism. Here she confronts a police inspector played by Brendan Gleeson.


CAREY MULLIGAN: (As Maud Watts) We break windows. We burn things 'cause war's the only language men listen to.

BRENDAN GLEESON: (As Inspector Steed) Then there's nothing left but to stop you.

MULLIGAN: (As Maud Watts) What you going to do? We're in every home. We're half the human race. You can't stop us all.

GLEESON: (As Inspector Steed) You might lose your life before this is over.

MULLIGAN: (As Maud Watts) We will win.

TURAN: "Suffragette" does not live and breathe like the best movies do, and that's a shame. As a closing crawl reminds us, there are still parts of the world where women cannot vote. And as good as this film is at its best, the story it tells deserves better.

GREENE: That is Kenneth Turan, who reviews films for MORNING EDITION and also for the Los Angeles Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.