HBO Watch: Iron Jawed Angels

“In oranges and women,” says the state psychiatrist who’s just examined suffragette leader Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) during her 1920 prison stay following a fiery protest of Woodrow Wilson, “courage is often mistaken for insanity.”

It’s with this cryptic, downright crappy line—a response to one anti-suffrage senator’s huff that comparing Paul’s jail-cell hunger strike to Patrick Henry’s “liberty or death” credo is comparing “apples and oranges”—that the tide of popular opinion turns to favor the radical activists seeking a right-to-vote amendment in Iron Jawed Angels, HBO’s latest offering following the critical hit Angels in America. (After a letter describing prison force-feedings is sneaked to the press, the suffragettes earn the nickname of the movie’s title.)

The bad news is there’s more of the same uncooked dialogue and two-bit one-liners scattered throughout the script. The good news is they’re only minor hitches in an otherwise passionately precise film. In fact, Iron Jawed Angels is so damned good at balancing the suffragettes’ story (which might otherwise have suffered from history-lesson tedium) with playful explorations of feminine sexuality and a pulsing modern-day soundtrack, you hardly even notice the few times its emotional momentum outruns its smarts.

Swank’s often brick-wallish personality fuels her portrayal of Paul, a new breed of feminist schooled in radical old England, where the women “throw bricks to get their voices heard.” Finding herself torn between the cause and pursuing love with a Washington Post illustrator, played with deft charm by Patrick Dempsey, she takes the high road—prompting another iffy quip from second-in-command Lucy Burns (an irresistibly likable Molly Parker): “Don’t you want to get married?” To which Paul replies, “I’m busy that day.”

Had the filmmakers stirred in a bit more swift-speech à la Bogart, or even borrowed a cup of Hudsucker Proxy, the film might just have sung early-20th-century America like a canary. Even as it stands, though, you’d be a first-class sap to miss it.

Iron Jawed Angels premieres on HBO at 9:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 15. Check cable listings for additional times.

Originally published in Willamette Week