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"What's a suffragette?" ask a whole lot of people younger than 40.

That alone is reason enough to bring women's early-20th-century struggle to win the vote to the big screen. But it's also a fascinating story of ingenuity, sacrifice and English women in flowery hats who resorted to such unladylike behavior as breaking windows and blowing up mailboxes "because war is the only thing men listen to," as rabble-rouser factory worker Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) puts it.

American women got the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, about a decade before their counterparts in England. "Suffragette" mixes real-life characters including movement leader Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep in a small but powerful role) with fictional ones, chief among them Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan).

Maud is a lower-class laundress who loves her husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), and dotes on their young son. She manages to rise through the ranks at work despite fending off the groping of her lecherous boss.

Like most women in her situation at that time, Maud isn't interested in pursuing more. But then she catches the brewing fever of the activists around her after being thrust into speaking at a hearing about the vote. She draws the attention of Irish detective Arthur Steed (a perfectly understated Brendan Gleeson), who employs cameras to track the women's movements in one of the earliest uses of surveillance technology.

Maud and her partners in righteous civil disobedience give up a lot for their dedication. They are imprisoned, violently force-fed on hunger strikes and see their children taken away.

This is no Merchant and Ivory-style, sun-drenched, gauze-filtered period drama. It resolutely sticks to the ashen grays and mud browns that made up the color palette of London's working-class streets, homes and workplaces — putting all the more pressure on the cast to captivate with words and expressions without going over the top. Mulligan, in particular, delivers, bringing believability to a role that's quite a stretch, given the transformation her character has to go through from workaday mum to first-wave feminist superhero. As her frustrated husband — a guy who's just as much a victim of his era as she is — Whishaw is touchingly conflicted.

Screenwriter Abi Morgan ("Iron Lady," "Shame") does a decent job of balancing fact with story-advancing fiction, though the narrative gets muddled at times. Director Sarah Gavron fails to develop some crucial characters enough to make us even remember their names, let alone care about their fates. This is especially true of Emily Wilding Davison — a real person whose dramatic, fatal act at the Epsom Derby made international headlines and prompted empathy for the cause. As bomb-making Edith Ellyn (loosely based on real-life suffragette Edith Garrud), an underused Helena Bonham Carter seems reduced to an expository device.

Though Streep commands the screen for precious few minutes as Pankhurst, the political activist idolized by the rank-and-file women warriors in whom she encouraged militant tactics, her memorable speech from a balcony nearly eclipses all that transpires before and after. "I'd rather be a rebel than a slave," she tells them, with that timelessly triumphant half-smile La Streep has so convincingly used for so long (and it still hasn't gotten old).

"Suffragette" begins with a politician's voice-over opining that women don't need to vote because their concerns are already "well-represented by their fathers, husbands and brothers." That statement brings guffaws of incredulity now, but was far and away the prevailing attitude of its day. To think otherwise was seen by the majority as absurd.

At a time when the word "feminist" has taken on similar pejorative connotations, and Hollywood continues to shortchange women everywhere from the director's chair to star salaries, the film is a reminder of both how far equality has come and that the battle continues.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046