Blending history with fiction, “Suffragette” portrays the struggle for women’s voting rights in early twentieth-century England through the experiences of one activist, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a downtrodden laundry worker only reluctantly drafted into the movement spearheaded by Emmeline Pankhurst (Maryl Streep), the founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Once committed to the cause, however, Watts finds herself involved in all the group’s major actions and suffering all of the humiliations the authorities can muster in response.

Watts, of course, is a literary contrivance fashioned by screenwriter Abi Morgan and director Sarah Gavron to represent the suffrage drive as a whole—not so much a composite character as an invented one onto which the myriad experiences of various Union members can be conflated for dramatic (or melodramatic) effect. The effect is of a weepy women’s movie from the 1940s presented against a too-thinly-drawn period background of political agitation and official repression.

So long as one is willing to accept the overall conceit, however, the film is a decent one in the
Masterpiece Theatre mode. It’s powered by the performance of Mulligan, who brings considerable shading to Watts, introduced as the line forewoman at a laundry run by a brutal—and lascivious–taskmaster (Geoff Bell). Her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) works there as well, and both of them look forward to the evenings when they can repair to their dismal home and play with their adorable young son George (Adam Michael Dodd).

Maud, who’s disgusted by the boss’ nasty treatment of his female employees (especially the younger ones), has an awakening when she witnesses some suffragettes, or “Panks,” breaking windows at a department store as a form of protest. The vandals include Emily Davison (Natalie Press) and Maud’s own co-worker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), who soon recruiting her into their ranks. And when Violet induces Watts to accompany her when she testifies about conditions at the laundry before a commission headed by Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller), circumstances require Maud to speak for the group instead. The experience will radicalize her, since the prime minister chooses to block the move to legislate female suffrage.

From this point the movement’s work is dramatized through Watts’s eyes. On the employment front, she’ll lose her job. Domestically, her husband will throw her out, prohibit her from seeing George, and finally give the boy out for adoption. But while grieving the loss of her family, Maud finds another in her fellow activists—Violet, Emily, druggist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) and of course Pankhurst, who’s been driven into hiding but nonetheless makes occasional public appearances to rally the troops. The group grows increasingly militant, employing small bombs in postal boxes and engaging in demonstrations that bring out the worst in the police, who show no compunction about using physical violence against the women.

The official reaction to the WSPU’s operations also includes a surveillance operation, including what were then state-of-the-art security cameras, directed by brooding anti-terrorist expert Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson). He’ll try to induce Watts to become a snitch, but her refusal will ultimately result in imprisonment and, when she joins other incarcerated suffragettes in a hunger strike, cruel forced feeding. Eventually Maud will be a key player in two of the Pankhurst organization’s most notorious plots—the bombing of Lloyd George’s summer house, and Davison’s attention-grabbing act of self-sacrifice at the 1913 Epsom Derby.

From the historical point of view, “Suffragettes” represents something akin to a medley of the WSPU’s “greatest hits” from the years 1912-13. It also offers a somewhat misleading postscript before the final credits, suggesting that the eventual legalization of female suffrage in Britain came about as a result of Pankurst’s agitation. Actually the country’s experiences in World War I had considerably more to do with it than is suggested here. The decision to situate all the episodes around a single woman is also a problem; it may serve to focus audience empathy, but also reduces everyone around her to the status of servant to her suffering. It’s too heavy a price to pay to achieve dramatic unity, particularly when the contributions of Gavron and editor Barney Pilling come across as earnest and workmanlike rather than inspired.

Nevertheless Mulligan again exhibits her prodigious gifts, and Carter brings gumption to the part of a dedicated fighter; Whishaw, moreover, adds a degree of nuance to the role of a husband trapped in the belief system of his era, though Gleeson can’t do much with a character whose attitudes are never really explored. The remainder of the supporting cast is adequate, with Streep’s cameos adding little to the mix beyond a general sense of determined nobility. Alice Normington’s production design achieves strong period verisimilitude, as do Barbara Herman-Skelding’s sets and Jane Petrie’s costumes, while Edu Grau’s dusky widescreen images also contribute to the early twentieth-century ambience. It doesn’t seem, however, that the film much excited the imagination of Alexandre Desplat; the score is one of his most forgettable. “Suffragette” pounds home its point at the close by listing chronologically the progress of female suffrage across the globe. It’s an effective if obvious device.

Incidentally, if you’d prefer a straightforward documentary treatment of the struggle for women’s rights in England, check out Amanda Vickery’s BBC mini-series “Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power,” available on DVD as an RLJ Athena release—an impassioned but reliable presentation, unencumbered by this film’s melodramatic inventions.