With its sepia tones and stirring themes, “Suffragette” arrives in theaters with the full weight of history and topical resonance behind it. The story of British activists who fought for women’s right to vote in the early 20th century, this portrait-in-miniature often carries uncanny contemporary echoes, from appeals to sweet reason falling on obstinately hostile ears to the shaming campaigns that political opponents used to silence feminist voices.
Directed with a sometimes assured, sometimes uneven hand by Sarah Gavron, from a script by Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”), “Suffragette” takes place in 1912 and 1913, when the 10-year-old Women’s Social and Political Union, founded by Emmeline Pankhurst, had intensified its tactics to include hunger strikes and arson attacks. By the time “Suffragette” opens, Pankhurst has gone into hiding and the movement is being carefully tracked by the authorities.
Gavron has done her homework in bringing the dramatically stratified world of “Suffragette” to life. From the outset, the film is suffused with bustling atmosphere and a heavy sense of dread. (The director is less adroit with action sequences, such as an unconvincing police riot that ensues after Pankhurst speaks). In fact, “Suffragette” would suffer from being fatally dreary and dutiful were it not for its central galvanizing performance by Carey Mulligan, who plays a reticent laundry worker whose consciousness is raised by a feisty colleague, played in a memorably sinewy, spirited performance by Anne-Marie Duff.
As the soft-spoken Maud Watts, Mulligan is, quite simply, a revelation. Her preternaturally expressive face conveys volumes in just one baleful look. Having mastered a subtle East London accent, Mulligan delivers a performance that is simultaneously meek and musical. Whether she’s confronting an uncomprehending husband (Ben Whishaw), an abusive boss (Geoff Bell) or a manipulative police inspector (Brendan Gleeson), her journey is never less than fleet and sure-footed, no matter how terrified she is of its repercussions. Called at the last minute to testify before Parliament, the exhausted, sad-eyed Maud turns a showstopping scene into a quiet, deeply touching moment, when she suggests, with heartbreaking simplicity, that there might be “another way of living this life.”
Even when “Suffragette” flirts with mawkish melodrama, as long as Mulligan is on screen — and especially when she’s joined by Duff — “Suffragette” is alight with pathos and infectious sisterly brio. Meryl Streep’s cameo as Ms. Pankhurst presents a rare instance of an actor’s offscreen persona fusing seamlessly with the mythic figure she’s playing. (The equally well-cast Helena Bonham Carter portrays a no-nonsense apothecary.)
The plot builds to a grievous climax, based on the real-life story of activist Emily Wilding Davison, who threw herself in front of a horse owned by King George V at a race in 1913. Gavron slightly overplays the race-against-time element in that sequence, but she sets the audience up for a sobering postscript in the end credits. “Suffragette” is an absorbing, ultimately moving portrait of thwarted ideals that rings all too true today.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some intense violence, disturbing thematic elements, brief strong language and partial nudity. 106 minutes.