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Made in Dagenham

Sally Hawkins and her plucky overbite will not be denied.   This much, at least, we should know by now.

Ms. Hawkins plays Rita O'Grady, one of  a very small minority (just 157 of 55,000)  of women working in the Ford Plant in Dagenham England.   The year is 1968, a fact partially announced by Desmond Dekker's "The Israelites," which we hear early on (the song went to #1 on the English charts that year), as male and female employees are seen riding their bikes to the plant, in something of a jolly, English, working class idyll.  Rita and her coworkers are sequestered in a sweaty workroom, where they are responsbible for sewing upholstery for Ford vehicles.   The warmth of the close workspace is attested to, as the first order of business for many of the women is to strip off overclothes down to slips, bras and articles of feminie dress that are a running source of embarassment for their kindly union rep., Albert, whenever he shows up to brief the women on negotiations with the company.   As the film begins, the women's work has recently downgraded to unskilled.   But before their fight for fair wages is over, they will demand not only a raise, but equal pay with their male counterparts at the plant.    

Made in Dagenham is actually based on a 1968 strike by sewing machinists at the Ford Plant in the east London suburb. So, as it all turns out, we have an ample amount feel good built into the story. None-the-less, scriptwriter William Ivory stacks the deck in favor of big emotional payoffs. There is the unlikely alliance in the still class-conscious Britain of the late 60’s of Rita and Lisa Hopkins, the wife of a Ford executive. Though educated with a Cambridge degree, Lisa (Rosamund Pike) languishes as little more than a trophy wife to her husband, relegated to serving Hors d’ouerve and looking pretty for guests. The two women have the common cause of a bullying teacher at a school attended by their sons. When Lisa learns of Rita’s struggle, she encourages her and even loans her a Biba dress for a meeting with Secretary of State for Employment, Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), rather to the shock of her husband. The brief scenes between Hawkins and Pike are strong enough, but there might as well be a crawl across the bottom of the screen: WOMEN OF BRITAIN UNITED, REGARDLESS OF CLASS. Got it.

Similarly, there is the kindly Albert, standing in a coffee shop one rainy afternoon with Rita, explaining his interest in the women's cause with a bit of plaintive back story.  He's the son of a single mother whose attempts to keep the family afloat were made all the more difficult by the inequity of being paid less than the men who performed the same life-shortening work in the factory where they labored.   This is all quite useful, lest we grow bewildered at a man with no obvious agenda helping the women.   Albert is a Bob Hoskins role.  Fortunately, Bob Hoskins is present to play it, liberally dispensing his bearish goodwill. 

Rita's transition from mild-mannered machinist to equal pay spokesperson is but one of what feels like several shortcuts taken by writer Ivory and director Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls).  It happens quickly.   In one scene, Rita is rendered speechless by the arrogant school teacher who she suspects of bullying her son.  In the next, she's drafted to represent the women at union negotiations.  She takes on that role at the encouragement of Albert, but also because her co-worker Eileen (Nicola Duffett) is at "sixes and sevens," tending to her husband, George, who's "touched," presumably from the Second World War.  The effect on George from his wife's need to fight and the rift it causes between she and Rita, like so much else in the script, betrays a clumsy construction that too often pokes through the pretty sixties wallpaper of the story.  It's a device to create tension, making the eventual reconciliation between the two women all the more satisfying.      

As for Sally Hawkins and her Rita, it takes both a while to find themselves in the broad roles they're given.   Ms. Hawkins has an off-kilter charm about her, something that served her so well in the lead role in Mike Leigh's Happy Go Lucky.  In that film, she played a woman of such unassailable good cheer that she seemed almost deranged at times.   As Rita, Hawkins often shows a slightly stunned smile, mouth a bit ajar with a minute upturn of the eyes, contemplating her moppy period hairdo as if it has perched on her head like a stray bird.     

But as Rita finds her voice, Hawkins finds her feet.    The women's strike eventually affects the entire plant, putting Rita's husband, Eddie,  and many of the men out of work as well.  For a time, Rita and her colleagues get little assistance or sympathy from stereotypically fat cat union officials or from their supposed comrades in the plant.  Initially supportive, Eddie (Daniel Mays, a man of such quintessentially English appearance that it would seem appropriate that he should be stored safely away at production's end like a valuable prop and trundled out to provide convincing period flesh and bone, as he has in films like Vera Drake, Atonement and The Bank Job) grows petulant when Rita's crusade keeps her away from the family and  him away from his job.   He stops her as she's leaving for an important union conference so he can speak his piece:  "I try me best..I 'ave a go.  I mean, Christ, I like a drink, but I'm not out on the beer every night, or screwing other women, or...and I've never once raised me hand to ya, ever, or the kids."  Eddy can see by the look on Rita's face that she's less than impressed by what he's said:   "You're a saint, now.  Is that what you're tellin' me, Eddie?  You're a bleedin' saint because you give us an even break?  That is as it should be!  Jesus!  What do you think this strike's been all about, eh?...For Chrissake, Eddie, that's as it should be!  You try and understand that."  The last words, the repetition of "as it should be," is spoken by Hawkins as by anyone so indignant that words are not really spoken so much as expelled.   A rousing speech to a union convention follows for Rita, but the confrontation with her husband is both the film and Hawkins at their best.

A film ostensibly about female characters and the English working class would be better served, it would seem, if peopled with three dimensional women and a bit more social realism.   But if you're in the market for some uplift at the theater, you could find worse company these days. 

Perhaps the most fully rounded female character in Made in Dagenham is, arguably, the Secretary of State, Barbara Castle.  The role might as well have been written for Miranda Richardson.   She gets many of the script's best lines, usually lashed out when she's lost patience with two of her male underlings, "dunderheads," as she rightfully refers to them.  The real Ms. Castle did meet with the strikers and eventually put the Equal Pay Act through Parliament in 1970, making Britain a leader among industrialized nations on the issue.  Enjoying the triumphant scene, as I was supposed to, when Castle and the strikers meet the press to proclaim their breakthrough, I could not completely banish a sense of melancholy, knowing the wicked that was that way coming, in the form of Margaret Thatcher.   It seemed sad that just ten years after such a real triumph for women and working people in general, the unions and working classes would be so devastated by Thatcher's policies.   But maybe that's a simplification of my own. 


In addition to the welcome bookending of Desmond Dekker tunes, the Made in Dagenham soundtrack is varied and a bit less predictable than the film to which it occasionally plays juke box.   Perhaps its just a matter of Beatles and Stones songs being too expensive to license.   But among good period tunes like "Friday on My Mind" (The Easybeats) and "With a Girl Like You," (The Troggs), the inclusion of two Sandy Shaw songs is particuarly apt.   Ms. Shaw,unfortunately little known in this country,  is something of a legend in her native Britain.   Her version of the Bacharach/David classic, "(There's) Always Something There To Remind Me," featured on the soundtrack, went to #1 in Britain in 1964.   She also sings "Made in Dagenham," written for the film by Billy Bragg.   Ms. Shaw actually worked in the Dagenham Ford Plant before turning to music.   Dubbed "The Diva of Dagenham," she came to symbolize the swinging 60's in London, also picking up the description, "the barefoot pop princess of the 1960's."   Even if you choose not to take the ultimately happy ride that is Made in Dagenham, check out Sandie Shaw.    

Here are two videos.   One is her 1964 #1.   The other is a vesion of The Smiths "Hand in Glove," which she performs with the band.   Morrissey has long been one of Sandie Shaw's more fervent admirers.



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