By Armond White
“Can we cope?” is Sally Hawkins incredulous reply to a journalist reporting on her stressful leadership of striking auto workers. “We’re women. Now don’t ask a stupid question.”
That one moment—one of the best in the British working-class drama Made in Dagenham—says more about the world and the indomitable female spirit than all of For Colored Girls. Telling the story of a 1968 labor action by women employed at the huge Ford Motor Company plant in Dagenham, England, Made in Dagenham is essentially a story of female coping. (Ford hired 55,000 men but only 187 women to make 3,100 vehicles a day.) Hawkins, as Rita O’Grady, puts up with her disbelieving husband and the strain of raising a family while making political progress and social history.
None of this means that Made in Dagenham is a great movie—in fact, it lacks true excellence. But director Cole’s appreciation for how women cope and achieve goes in the right direction, more so than the pathetic sob stories by which Tyler Perry, Oprah Winfrey and Lee Daniels have stereotyped African-American female experience. Cole, who made the 2003 Calendar Girls, has a particular interest in the way women assert themselves. His attention to social history and female resolve—Calendar Girls saluted middle-aged, working-class women who dared to pose naked to publicize their independence—results in a rare sense of femaleness. You don’t have to be George Cukor or Sofia Coppola to achieve it. But you do need an orderly sense of drama, and Made in Dagenham messily compiles observation of England’s abundant working class with casual details of female boldness. These no-nonsense workers strip down to their brassieres to bear the factory heat; they talk back to men out of a natural—not fashionable—sense of human equality.
Hawkins, a plucky personality as Mike Leigh’s optimistic protagonist in the superb Happy-Go-Lucky, gets lost in Rita’s reluctant labor heroine. She’s often too anxious and deferential than necessary. But Hawkins is also good at Rita’s pluckiness, and in the latter part of the film she is winningly gallant and confident. Also better than all of For Colored Girls are scenes where Rita becomes infatuated with Lisa (Rosamund Pike), a Cambridge grad who has acquiesced to the norms of marriage and Rita’s clash-then-empathy with Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), the female factory executive.
Richard’s formal, theatrical virtuosity complements Hawkins’ working-class naturalism. The boardroom scene where Barbara remembers her individuality (“I am what’s known as a fiery redhead”) is as rousing as Rita correcting her husband’s condescending politeness, reminding him of his duty (“It’s rights, not privileges. That’s as it should be, Eddie!”). Here’s where these actresses redeem doctrinaire feminism. British filmmakers have a stronger, clearer sense of class entitlement and obligation (as in the excellent Brassed Off) than American filmmakers who get tangled up in fashionable, P.C. privilege as enjoyed by the middle-class, like in the obnoxious The Kids Are All Right and Charlize Theron’s phony North Country.
Rita’s big speech is wonderfully egalitarian: “Men and women, we are in this together. We are not divided by sex. Only by those willing to accept injustice.” But Cole is slow to dramatize this realization; he pays more attention to the legacy of the story of striking female workers than to the reality of England’s class, gender and race structure. Documentary footage of the actual strike shows only white women workers—a fact that must be computed by the audience to understand the social and cultural scope of the story. Other newsreel footage verifies blacks and Asian male factory workers. Some aspect of the black/Asian experience would have given fuller dimension to this inspiring story. Made in Dagenham proves that the struggle for human rights is not only for white or colored girls.
Made in Dagenham
Directed by Nigel Cole
At the Angelika Film Center & Lincoln Plaza Cinema
Runtime: 113 min.
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