Hollywood awards folks seem to like movies about women fighting for women’s rights. Sally Field nabbed the Oscar for “Norma Rae” (textile worker unionizes the mill). Charlize Theron got the nomination for “North Country” (miner brings on a sexual harassment case). So will they go for “Made in Dagenham,” a British take on a similar situation? Sally Hawkins (“Happy Go Lucky”) certainly gives an award-worthy performance as a cheery wife-mom-Ford factory worker in the industrial town of Dagenham, England, in 1968.
Hollywood awards folks seem to like movies about women fighting for women’s rights. Sally Field nabbed the Oscar for “Norma Rae” (textile worker unionizes the mill). Charlize Theron got the nomination for “North Country” (miner brings on a sexual harassment case).
So will they go for “Made in Dagenham,” a British take on a similar situation? Sally Hawkins (“Happy Go Lucky”) certainly gives an award-worthy performance as a cheery wife-mom-Ford factory worker in the industrial town of Dagenham, England, in 1968.
The story’s setting and situation, if not quite grim, is one that needs some fixing. There are 187 female machinists at the Ford plant – a place where it’s too hot to wear a shirt, and water pours in from the ceiling when it rains – all seated in neat rows, repetitively cutting up and sewing together material for car seats.
Conditions are accepted without much thought till the day the company owners and bean counters in America decide to make some changes – all of them involving pay scale, none of them resulting in any good news for the women who are regarded as second class to the male workers.
Sides are formed, walkouts are planned, tempers flare, union officials show how thin-skinned they really are, and leaders are chosen. Well, one leader is chosen: Rita O’Grady (Hawkins) is plucked by her well-meaning plant manager (Bob Hoskins) to help fight the good fight against the wimpy union men and the evil American corporate types.
The question the film asks is could this small group of women bring behemoth Ford to its knees? Because this true story isn’t well known in America, that answer won’t be given away here. What’s OK to reveal is that the film is a treasure trove of strong performances. Hawkins is terrific in the lead, almost always wearing a winning smile, ever-ready to give a spontaneous, rousing, but controlled speech, whether to a small group of workers or a roomful of union men. She’s also completely believable when things start to get a little sticky at home and a different side of her temperament peeks through.
Yet Hawkins is surrounded by actors who shine as brightly (in a couple of cases even brighter) as she does. Hoskins plays Albert Passingham as a man who can’t keep from smiling as he notes Rita’s natural tendency to speak her mind. Miranda Richardson portrays Parliament minister Barbara Castle as a woman who holds a tremendous amount of power yet keeps a twinkle of good humor in her eyes. Richard Schiff (“The West Wing”) presents his American Ford representative Robert Tooley as the kind of soulless jerk you simply want to hiss at. But the finest character performance in the film goes to Rosamund Pike, as Lisa Hopkins, a very smart, very sad woman who has a need to bare her soul, and does so onscreen to the extent that some viewers will shed tears.
The turmoil at the center of the story starts with a small group of women staging a one-day walkout. To use a contemporary term, let’s say that things go viral, turning to much more than “unrest at work” and shades of a strike, eventually leading to a company-wide domino effect.
Director Nigel Cole (“Calendar Girls”) perfectly captures the late-1960s not only with the right hair styles and clothing and interior designs, but also with some great music of the day, ranging from “Green Tambourine” to “Paper Sun” to Desmond Dekker’s great “Israelites.” Though the film is earnest, it never gets hysterical in presenting its case, even when Rita gives a sort of laidback “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore” speech. Does it make you want to stand up and cheer? Not really, because we’ve seen this stuff before. But you’ll definitely go home remembering how much some of these actors have brought to their game.
MADE IN DAGENHAM (R for language and brief sexuality). Cast includes Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Rosamund Pike, Miranda Richardson. Directed by Nigel Cole. 3 stars out of 4.