Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 24, 2010 9:09 am 
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Women's rights in a British feel-good comedy

This dramatization of an equal-pay-for-equal-work victory of 1969 at English Ford is a feel-good experience for anybody who cares about grassroots political action and women's rights. On the other hand, except for some frank language (which may or may not have been used at the time), the style is so understated in traditional English style that is could have been made at some earlier time. Even if Sally Hawkins, who gets a grand opportunity here, makes a perfect feisty young woman, Made in Dagenham is so lightweight and British it doesn't make a huge impression. On the other hand, some of the good qualities of traditional English cinema are here. There are no stars. Everyone is a character actor and everyone is good. The actors serve the action and the action serves the true events.

At least up to a point. No revolution here, nor much of the long, hard, bitter stuff that goes into actual political struggle. Made in Dagenham concerns a giant leap for womankind, but it's but one small step for director Nigel Cole. With the help of his writer, William Ivory, Cole adopts much the same kind of broad humor he used in his 2003 Calendar Girls, about Women's Institute ladies who pose nude to raise funds for charity. This new effort is a delightful little film, a workers' rights bonbon. But hard-core labor advocates may find it rather lacking in the kind of sharp treatment of work and social issues you find in Laurent Cantet's powerful film about a French factory strike that divides a family, Human Resources.

To its credit this is a very positive story in a field where the downbeat is common, and where in recent English films labor struggles have been pushed to one side in favor of personal drama. In Brassed Off and The Full Monty, layoffs are a given, but not the focus. Billy Elliot takes place during a prolonged and painfully unsuccessful miners' strike; but again, it's just a given: the movie's about a working class boy wanting to dance ballet. This one really is about the labor issue: getting approval at the top for equal pay for women. The Ford bosses have classified the ladies who sew together auto seat covers as "unskilled." The truth emerges that throughout the world of work women in England are getting paid a lot less than men for the same jobs. And the women at the Dagehnam Ford factory organize, with their determined leader (an amalgam of several women) to see their demands met.

Made in Dagenham gives us a few colorful characters. There's Sally Hawkins as Rita, the gutsy working girl and mother and unexpected leader whose husband is supportive but a bit dense. There's Jaime Winstone as Sandra, a sexy worker who wants to become a fashion model (and gets a chance). Andrea Riseborough is the sexually liberated Brenda. Bob Hoskins, older and mellower now, is the kindly and sympathetic local union rep, Albert Passingham. Then there are the designated bad guys, contrasted with the women of privilege who are sympathetic to the women's cause. Chief among the former is the Dagenham English Ford general manager Peter Hopkins (Rupert Graves) and the Good Old Boy union official Monty Taylor (Kenneth Cranham), who enjoys his perks and paid jaunts and doesn't want to rock the boat. Then an American Ford executive is sent over (The West Wing's invincibly dour Stephen Schiff) and is ready to use even more brutal tactics than the local boss to squelch the rebellion that, if successful, will cost the owners money.

Meanwhile, somewhat implausibly, the factory manager's wife Lssa (Rosamund Pike) not only sends her son to the same school Rita's little boy attends and has the same beef with a cruel teacher, but eagerly bonds personally with Rita on the issue of women's rights. She has a Cambridge degree in history, but her husband expects her to be satisfied with serving oeuvres-d'oeuvres at parties. At the top (in a juicy, slightly too pat role) is Miranda Richardson as Harold Wilson's Secretary of State Barbara Castle, who feels condescended to by men too, and wants to give the girls a break. The actions here, somewhat run together, led Castle to put through the Equal Pay Act 1970, whose principles spread to other developed countries.

As shown, Rita's leadership is unpremeditated and surprises her as much as anyone. Albert takes her to a meeting with union leaders, and when they seem ready to leave the women where they are, she spontaneously speaks up, shows how complicated the sewing is, and from there on for her there's no turning back. Made in Dagenham is free of complicated conflict. Characters and issues are so clear-cut and uplifting, you might almost expect this to be a musical, though Sally Hawkins' reedy voice might not work. The film could even have verged into broader, ruder comedy than it does. The women do strip down to their skivvies when the old factory gets too hot in the summer. And the original title was to be "Women Want Sex," from the actual case that one of the ladies' big banners saying "Woman Want Sex Equality" got broken in half, to the amusement of bystanders.

Hawkins won attention for her energetic lead performance in Mike Leigh's Happy Go Lucky, and now is in everything, even Jane Eyre, and briefly in the creepy Never Let Me Go. But with her scrawny, off-kilter looks and limited voice, she's not good in everything. Her stage turn as the daughter in Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession did not work. As Rita, she's fine -- within the limitations of the film -- full of pep and not too beautiful. This is, after all, the story not of goddesses but of ordinary women who win a major victory through sheer determination and pluck. When the posh history major Lisa Hopkins tells Rita she's watching her make history, it's a powerful enough moment to make this conventional Carry On style filmmaking worth our time.

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