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Suffrage in the city

Published Aug. 27, 2005

The lasting, but unintended, message of HBO's Iron Jawed Angels is that contemporary audiences need hip-hop music, MTV-style editing and sexual suggestion to keep them watching a movie about the American women's suffrage movement.

Yes, these are our great-grandmother's rebels, but we've never seen them this vibrant, funny and cute. They like pretty hats! They think about sex! They march to a 21st century beat! German director Katja von Garnier begs us to forget every black-and-white picture we've seen of dour Susan B. Anthony.

Overlook Iron Jawed Angels' concessions to modern sensibilities (would someone in 1915 really say "do the math"?) and watch this movie despite its gratuitous bathtub scene. It's good to be reminded in an election year how hard and long women fought to win the vote. The debut tonight on HBO after Sex and the City takes us from the unbuttoned to the button-downed.

Iron Jawed Angels tells the true story of Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) and Lucy Burns (Frances O'Connor) and their renegade National Women's Party, whose daily picketing of President Woodrow Wilson, even after the start of World War I, lands them in jail. "Iron Jawed Angels" is the nickname given the women because of the metal clamps that wrench open their mouths during hunger strikes to force-feed them raw eggs. Now, that's not pretty.

Julia Ormond is the tragic Inez Mulholland, the horse-riding figurehead of the party, and Anjelica Huston plays old-school Carrie Chapman Catt, who implores the young upstarts to work within the system. (Catt formed the League of Women Voters.) But it's 1912, the organized effort is more than 60 years old, and still women can't vote. Paul, a pivotal but lesser-known figure in the movement, wants action.

The movie brings viewers to 1920, when it becomes clear to Wilson that fighting for democracy overseas while denying American women the vote is an embarrassment to him and, tangentially, unjust. Though it's obvious the time has come, Congress only narrowly grants voting rights.

About halfway through the movie, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, von Garnier abandons her edgy style and returns to traditional visual storytelling. It's here that the weight of the mission is finally felt.

Perhaps the visceral beat of Lauryn Hill's Everything Is Everything ("Change, it comes eventually") does drive home the point more than Hinky Dinky, Parlay-Voo. But how refreshing it would be to see a movie about women's history in which showy costumes and flawless makeup don't share center stage with character and determination.

REVIEW: Iron Jawed Angels, 9:30 tonight on HBO