When Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) steps out of prison, she’s pinned with a ribbon to commemorate her “first incarceration.” Endorsing the oft-quoted dictum that “well-behaved women seldom make history,” Suffragette plays out like a star-studded rallying cry in period garb. The drama is contrived, the mood is calculated and the agenda is clear-cut. The good and the bad are so black-and-white, Suffragette actually fits the mold of a sports film. Even the marketing material has the feel of playing cards. Yet for all its pomp and fantasy, it’s an enjoyable game to watch. One roots for these women because they’re underdogs, their cause is commendable and there is joy to be had in watching women throw bricks.

Mulligan’s Maud is a fetching laundress, sweating her life away in a factory run by a sexually abusive supervisor (Geoff Bell) who appears to be patriarchy incarnate. Maud was born in the laundry, her mother was an employee and she never knew her father. Since abysmal work conditions and obligations of marriage and motherhood are all she knows, the arrival of the Women’s Social and Political Union is a shock to the senses.

Maud is like a wide-eyed faun staring in disbelief at the activist’s misbehavior. In case her naiveté wasn’t clear, writer Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady) has her gazing wistfully at a store window display when rocks smash through the glass. It’s an act of rebellion by the suffragettes who have a long way to go in their fight for voting rights. Maud flees the scene, returning to the tenement she shares with her husband (Ben Whishaw) and son (Adam Michael Dodd, competing with Room’s Jacob Tremblay for world’s cutest kid) but the seeds of rebellion have been planted.

After recognizing one of the suffragettes at the factory (a scene-stealing Anne-Marie Duff), Maud is gradually taken in by the outspoken women, even testifying before parliament in one gloriously improbable scene. Forced to choose between her duties as a mother and her support for the cause, Maud opts for the vote and domestic drama ensues.

Those expecting to see much of Meryl Streep will be sorely disappointed. As Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the British movement, Streep is in hiding for most of the film. She appears to deliver a rousing speech to a legion of screaming fans (“Never surrender”) and then she absconds into the night before the police can capture her by her Edwardian coattails. In Streep’s place, we have Edith (Helena Bonham Carter), a taboo-breaking chemist; Emily (Natalie Press), a real-life hunger striker; and Alice (Romola Garai), a rich lady whose husband disproves of her association with the activists. I mention these characters because as much as Mulligan is the star of the show, Suffragette depends on its ensemble of strong female characters. And rightly so—the fight for women’s rights, then and now, relies on solidarity among many, not stardom among few.

Privileging action at every turn, director Sarah Gavron’s camera is a flurry of movement. From steaming laundry machines to exploding mailboxes, Suffragette forgoes Lincoln’s dialogue-heavy style of politics, following Pankhurst’s advice instead: “Deeds not words.” The camera is sometimes too shaky for its own good but its flaw are made up for in expert artistic direction. The cast of Suffragette is decked in an astounding array of costumes. From trousers and hats to robes and blouses, Jane Petrie creates a rugged, mismatched look while production designer Alice Normington delivers a rewarding view of cobblestoned streets and grimy prison cells.

In as much as Suffragette aims to ruffle a male-dominated Hollywood landscape, it’s guilty of overlooking certain aspects of women’s rights. By framing the movement through Maud’s eyes, Morgan does a nice job affirming the role of working class women. Conspicuously absent, however, are people of color and queer women. The film also treats the issue of voting rights as a catchall for feminist success.

I imagine many critics will be pleased at the ease with which they can deride Suffragette, a film that suffers from admittedly heavy doses of gloss and fictionalization. They can call out the misleading promotion of Streep, the plot devices and the self-important message. But where they see canny marketing, I see a female-directed, female-written film that believes in its mission to enlighten and empower mainstream viewers. Maud and her counterparts are fearless and determined, even cool. The women of Suffragette aren’t perfect, but they sure know how to put up a fight.

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