Saturday, January 22, 2011

Made In Dagenham (**1/2)

Directed by Nigel Cole


There are certain film actors that are imbued with such wonderful likability that they fill their screen characters with such unavoidable watchability. I think Sally Hawkins is the newest member of this group and in Made in Dagenham she continues this trend. As the Women's Rights activist Rita O'Grady (not a real person in history, but real enough for the movie I suppose), Hawkins charms the audience so much that it is almost enough to distract from the film's by-the-numbers screenplay and mundane, often scattered direction. She's able to make the movie a pretty fun experience when all is said and done, and even though we've seen a hundred movies just like this one before, at least we can appreciate the wit.

Rita is one of 187 women working for the famed Ford Company factory in Dagenham, England. They may not put the actual car together, but they sew and hem the fabrics and the leathers for the seats and the armrests. Doesn't seem like the greatest responsibility until you sit in a car seat that's busting at the seams, and you realize just how uncomfortable an improperly manufactured car seat can be. What these women do is skilled, complex labor, but yet, the Ford company does not feel like paying them as if it is. It doesn't help that the head of their union is more interested in indulging in free meals and round trips through Europe, than actually furthering their cause. But when the Ford Company treats them as merely a burdening issue that will soon go away with a little patience, Rita and her group of strong-minded, sharp-tongued girls leave the plant and go on strike.

Albert (Bob Hoskins), the girls' factory manager, brings up one point to Rita that they'd never considered. They will never get paid fairly because no matter what happens, women will always be paid less than their male counterparts. Why? Because the companies can do so, they will do so, and that is how it has always been. So, Rita, along with her witty group of girls decide they will not come back to work until equal pay amongst men and women becomes legislation. This alienates the men, who get laid off once the car plant cannot produce seat furnishing. This includes Rita's oafish, but lovable husband Eddie (Daniel Mays) - whose character has one of the single most hackneyed character arcs in movie history: love wife, made nervous by said wife, dismiss wife, challenge wife, break and come begging back for mercy; we know as soon as we see him.

It's not long before their equal pay strike and hits the news, and even captures the attention of Secretary of State Barbara Castle (a fiery performance from Miranda Richardson). Feeling a kinship to these women, Castle legitimizes their cause and stands behind it - but even she has political hurdles she must cross before making equal pay a reality. Made In Dagenham is the kind of movie where you do not even fathom there being a solemn note by the end, and seeing Barbara Castle's appearance only strengthens that. It's the kind of film that strategically moves all of its heartbreak to the middle - men berating them, trouble at home and in society for shutting down the plant - so that the ending is even that much more uplifting. Which is fine in the overall scheme of things, but it certainly leaves the movie without any real feeling of suspense, and when the screenplay itself decides to tell the story without any real edge or innovation, you walk in knowing what you're going to see once the opening credits come up.

But there is one major subplot that has real heart. It includes Lisa Hopkins (Rosamund Pike), the wife of one of the Ford agents trying to break the women's strike. When Lisa and Rita strike up a kinship, it seems a bit like an odd pairing, but Lisa presents a personal, realistic window into the world that these women are fighting against everyday. "I've got an Honors degree from Cambridge University," she tells Rita, "but my husband speaks to me like I'm a fool." In only a handful of scenes, Rosamund Pike's performance is gentle, but powerful, allowing a seemingly superfluous character make an indelible stamp on the film. So much so that I almost wondered what a film solely about Lisa would have been like, but I guess that's besides the point.

The film does have terrific performances. The factory women (including great work from Andrea Riseborough, Jaime Winstone, and Geraldine James, amongst others) are a hoot, not subscribing to the usual ladylike behavior that's expected from their fellow Englishwomen. They make snarky remarks, cuss, and have sex, and this group of actresses fills them with enough unapologetic charm that it doesn't seem like a put-on. And Hawkins (who I've loved since her masterful work in Happy-Go-Lucky) does do a good job in a kind of role she'd never tackled before. Does director Nigel Cole fully exploit her greatest qualities? Not all the time. I sometimes felt towards the end that Rita spent so much time crying that it made it hard for me to believe she could accomplish anything. But Hawkins is able to dig deep and bring soul out of a very sweet, overtly emotional woman.

I can't imagine anybody walking out of Made In Dagenham disappointed. It opened with a giant thud in America, which left its Oscar chances fleeting, at best. It's satisfying in the kind of way that fast food is, but certainly you could eat something a lot better - and surely Made In Dagenham could have had a lot more spark. As it stands, all of its excitement stems solely from its cast, which wasn't afraid to be bare of ethics and embrace crassness. I feel like there were a lot of wasted opportunities here. Perhaps too much time was spent trying to shoehorn the film into a lighthearted comedy. Either way, Dagenham is worth seeing for the performances from Hawkins, Pike, and James alone. And Miranda Richardson does score occasionally when she is on the screen. It's also a bummer to find out that Rita O'Grady never actually existed, but who knows, perhaps the real story could have been even duller.

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