Friday, January 7, 2011

Made in Dagenham: Sew fine

Made in Dagenham (2010) • View trailer for Made in Dagenham
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity and a bit of earthy behavior
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.7.11

Her features are plain but somehow striking: a ready, cheerful smile; flinty intelligence behind the eyes; the sort of quiet integrity that inspires trust and invites shared confidences. She’s dressed plainly, in clothes that come from bargain lots, although care has been taken to make do; her appearance is by no means sloppy.

Wife, mother ... factory worker. Merely one of many women in this film’s establishing shots, and yet somehow she’s easy to spot in director Nigel Cole’s camera placement: a woman of potential importance. Featured player in our story.
While Albert (Bob Hoskins) quietly cheers from the sidelines, Rita (Sally
Hawkins, center) builds to a quiet fury after her local union representative tries
to minimize her legitimate grievances with another condescending -- but
empty -- promise to "consider the situation" at some vague point in the future.

We in the States had our Norma Rae; England had its Rita O’Grady.

Well ... sort of. Screenwriter William Ivory actually made “Rita” a fictionalized amalgam of several different people, compressing the militant activities of many into one. But the broad strokes are accurate, and the story itself is both true and a powerful reminder: Revolutions can have humble origins. All it takes is a crack in the dam, and eventually the pent-up water will break through and crumble the entire structure.

The setting is England in 1968, where Rita (Sally Hawkins) is one of 187 women employed by the British arm of the Ford Motor Company in Dagenham. Unlike their 55,000 male counterparts, who work in the automaker’s gleaming new facility, these women toil in a decrepit 1920s plant with a leaky roof and pigeons in the overhead rafters. During the summer, the stifling heat prompts them – young and old – to strip down to their frillies, out of sheer self-defense.

This causes all sorts of consternation for their easily embarrassed union representative, Albert (Bob Hoskins), who must avert his gaze whenever visiting “the floor,” accompanied by the warning call of “Man present!”

(Filming actually took place at an old Hoover factory in the small community of Merthyr Tydfil, in Wales: a plant that once employed 5,000 but was in the process of shutting down. The sad impact on the local community no doubt lent additional significance to the cast and crew, as this movie was being made.)

The women sew car seat upholstery, a uniquely specialized job that requires constant adjustment and decision-making, depending on automobile make and model. And yet despite this, the women are classified as “unskilled labor” and paid a fraction of what their husbands and boyfriends make. These “birds” bicycle to work, because the men in their lives get the car ... if they’re lucky enough to own one. The men are, after all, the principal wage-earners; the women are perceived as homemakers ... despite pulling identical shifts at the plant. Their work and wages are secondary.

Dagenham is a factory town, in every sense of the phrase. These people live in ugly towers that are “projects” in all but name: the working poor, but nonetheless ferociously proud and doing their best to make do.

Cole and Ivory present all this information and back-story rather matter-of-factly; Made in Dagenham is by no means strident. The situation is laid out, and we’re left to draw our own conclusions (even if they are screamingly obvious).

The ladies have tolerated this disparity for years, decades even. But at this particular moment in 1968, the dynamic shifts; blame one too many amused glances from the lads across the way, one too many patronizing remarks in the pub, after hours. A long-brewing demand for better working conditions – put forth by the shop steward and group matriarch, Connie (Geraldine Jones), and clandestinely encouraged by Albert – goes all the way to a meeting with Ford’s head of industrial relations, Peter Hopkins (Rupert Graves).

Almost as an afterthought, Albert brings Rita along, wanting to have one more warm body on “their side,” as a psychological advantage. (Albert, it should be mentioned, is a crafty bugger, and Hoskins is every bit the sly rascal.) Stung by the bland, contemptuous indifference from the Ford reps, Rita surprises everybody – herself included – by threatening a strike if their demands aren’t met.

And having worked up to full – if still polite – fury, Rita escalates the stakes: not just a re-classification to skilled labor, but (merciful heavens!) pay parity with their male counterparts.


Despite what appears to be a potential crisis, Hopkins and his colleagues adopt a wait-and-see attitude. Maybe, after Rita and her mates draw vicarious sustenance from their cute, one-day walk-out, they’ll simmer down and return to work ... like good little girls.

By now, though, we’ve been exposed to enough of Rita’s flinty persistence to know better. Despite being backed into this position of authority, she has that precise blend of humility and plain-speaking charisma to command respect as a leader; when she talks, others listen. And as the movement grows – as Rita and her sisterhood of upholstery seamstresses reach out to other underpaid women within Ford’s massive presence in the United Kingdom – pressure is applied on several fronts.

Does the union truly represent all its workers ... or just its male workers? And how will the grudging support granted by the men in these women’s lives change, if the strike lingers long enough to throw them on the dole?

And on the corporate side, if these 187 cogs in the massive mechanism set a precedent, what will that mean to female Ford employees all around the globe?

Honestly, you can’t help smiling wickedly and rubbing your hands with glee.

Although Hawkins is our heroine of necessity, the established group dynamic is a character in its own right. All these women are fun, feisty, playfully naughty and deliciously earthy. (Small wonder; how else could they relax?) A few become familiar supporting players: Brenda (Andrea Riseborough), recognized by her signature beehive hairdo and cheerful willingness to indulge in a playful shag; and young Sandra (Jamie Winstone), who hopes to translate her gamine good looks into another Twiggy success story, by becoming a London model.

Hoskins, although introduced as grandfatherly comic relief, delivers an unexpectedly complex performance. Albert, we eventually learn, has little patience with his union higher-ups, personified by the condescending Monty (Kenneth Cranham), who seems unwilling to rock the boat and potentially threaten the posh free lunches he enjoys when meeting with Ford. Albert has ample reason for his quiet support of Rita and the other women, and Hoskins makes the most of this eventual confession. Nor is this is only great scene; he also gets a corker later on, when finally confronting Monty and his peers.

Danny Mays co-stars as Eddie, Rita’s husband, who does his best with domestic chores – and caring for their school-age children – as his wife’s expanding fame leaves her less time for such details. Rosamund Pike has a telling supporting role as a sympathetic, upper-middle-class woman who meets Rita by chance, at the school both their sons attend.

Richard Schiff pops up as Robert Tooley, the U.S. Ford rep sent over to “sort things out”; Schiff is quite convincing as a ruthless corporate enforcer quite willing to cut to the core of any problem. And you’ll recognize Danny Huston’s voice as the unseen Ford CEO who gives Tooley his marching orders.

Miranda Richardson, though, has the showiest secondary part, as Barbara Castle, the British Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity. Richardson makes a wonderful spitfire, particularly when she browbeats the two male lackeys still foolish enough to behave condescendingly in her presence.

(Castle is an actual historical figure, and an important one: eventually one of the most important Labor party politicians of the 20th century, after having been elected to Parliament in 1945. Until her record was broken in 2007, Castle was the female MP with the longest continuous service ... and she remains the only woman, to date, to have held the office of First Secretary of State.)

Composer David Arnold, perhaps most famous for having taken over the James Bond musical franchise, contributes a wry, delightfully whimsical score. Production designer Andrew McAlpine conveys a strong sense of the Dagenham environment: not just the dwellings, shops and pubs, but the very atmosphere of this tight-knit community.

History is made by all sorts of folks: the striking, show-boating authority figures at one extreme, and the calm, dignified rebels at the other. Made in Dagenham – marvelous double-entendre title, that – is a captivating depiction of actual events that changed the entire world, and the cherry on top of this delicious sundae comes during the closing credits, as some of the actual Dagenham women are briefly interviewed ... and they’re every bit as feisty and mischievous as their younger, somewhat fictitious counterparts we’ve just watched. And still stunned by what happened, all those decades ago.

Champions, in every sense of the word.

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