(No longer in theaters)
Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley
Sony Pictures Classics
Nov 19, 2010
Why are Brits so much more adroit than Yanks at pumping fresh blood into hoary melodramas? My guess is that it’s their social-realist tradition: They know if they don’t get the milieu just right, they’ll get a stern talking-to from Michael Apted. The latest U.K. winner is the true-life-inspired feminist-union picture Made in Dagenham, which, beat by narrative beat, ought to have you rolling your eyes instead of balling your fists and audibly urging on its heroine, Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins). The time is 1968, when every morning, the working-class women of Dagenham pedal up to the gates of the Ford Motor Company, where they’ll unbutton their tops to give themselves room to stretch, settle in behind their old machines, and stitch car seats for a fraction of the wages of their male counterparts. They’re incensed when Ford decides to change their status from semi-skilled to unskilled, but it’s only when their tough little union rep, Albert (Bob Hoskins), pulls Rita from the ranks and tugs her along to a meeting with management that the stakes change. There’ll be no more corporate stalling, no more jabber about slow, incremental progress. These boots are made for walkouts.
The management scene is key. The old union-local man (Kenneth Cranham) tells the Industrial Relations head (Rupert Graves) that slow change is fine, because who really knows what’s in these women’s heads?—while Rita, commanded to let the man do the talking, begins to writhe, her lips to quiver, until finally, finally, those lips form the word “Bollocks!” It’s a heady ride from there, as Rita, dubbed the Revlon Revolutionary, finds her voice. The men turn on their female counterparts; Rita’s husband tells her she’s neglecting her maternal responsibilities; and the national union—Hoskins’s protofeminist excepted—comes to regard the ladies as a nuisance. In the end, it comes down to Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson). Will she side with her government and class or with her patronized sisterhood?
It’s hard to do justice to Hawkins’s acting, because you never actually see it: Her Rita simply is. First she’s fun-loving but dutiful, then she’s breathing hard and groping to find her way, and finally she’s carried aloft by her cause—no more likely to halt her crusade than a bird is to go live in a hole in the ground. (Speaking of birds, there’s an especially cute and perky one in Jaime Winstone.) But the whole ensemble clicks. Writer William Ivory keeps the dialogue down-to-earth, and director Nigel Cole keeps the camera out of the actors’ faces and on the entire social-sexual ecosystem. Made in Dagenham is perfectly shameless but shamelessly perfect.