Made in Dagenham

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Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ***½

With Saving Grace, Calendar Girls and now Made In Dagenham, director Nigel Cole proves that, with decent writing and a good cast, he can give us smart, topical, mainstream movies that will fill up American art cinemas -- at least briefly -- after which they will find their way to healthy ancillary profits. Cole's work gets better, film after film, and Dagenham is his strongest yet. This is a movie with a message that could hardly be more timely [see: Wisconsin].

Cole, and his team – including writer William Ivory, actress Sally Hawkins and an exceptionally fine ensemble, each of whom captures his/her character in delightful and very specific fashion -- takes us back to pre-Thatcher England, to an important piece of labor (and Labour Party) history and turn it into rabble-rousing life, even if that life is sometimes a tad too convenient. What happened in Dagenham, the location of the British Ford plant, when its women workers wanted to be recognized as "skilled labor" who should earn something approaching the wages paid to men is the subject of the film, and it could hardly be more timely in many ways. The importance of unions -- when they actually serve the workers who fund them -- is something western nations need to remember just now, and the film offers up this message with surprise and sass.

Screenwriter Ivory does a nice job of blending together several stories of these workers and their union rep (a wonderfully funny and moving Bob Hoskins), and he, together with the ace performers turns each of the characters into specific and very winning individuals. (Hoskins' speech about his mom is a memorable marvel.)

Hawkins has her best role since Poppy in Mike Leigh's Happy Go Lucky, and she makes the most of it: a relatively happy wife in a relatively typical marriage of that time period (the 1960s) who is thrust into the job of union representative and finds herself taking to it with relish and more. Hawkins combines humor, intelligence and vulnerability with a strength that seems to come from deep within and which she can tap when needed -- but not without some pain. She has pretty much cornered the market for this brand of pretty, plucky womanhood, and Dagenham gives her a good chance to shine.

In the supporting roles are a number wonderful actresses, new and old: Geraldine James (The Jewel in the Crown) brings complexity and grace to her role of the older union rep, while Andrea Riseborough is funny and frank as the most "out-there" of the younger women.

Jamie Winstone is sweet and winning as a Ford worker who want to model (and unfortunately gets her chance), while Rosamund Pike (An Education) brings her elegance and class to one of the movie's most interesting roles: the wife of one of the Ford factory bosses.

Ivory's script captures various views of the women's strike and what this does to the local town, and to its menfolk, suddenly out of work. He shows the toll taken on the individual women -- James and Hawkins, in particular -- as their own husbands begin to fall away from the "cause," one haltingly, the other permanently. And he gives an interesting look at a corrupted union man who consistently sells out his constituency to the factory owners.

It's in the character of one British woman, however, that the film finds much of its fun and satire: the new Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, one Barbara Castle, played by Miranda Richardson in one of her rare, delightful modes (with big bouffant). She, among all the politicians and government employees shown, is the only one who seems to possess brains and gumption, and in fact might have you thinking of what Margaret Thatcher could have accomplished for Britain and its people had she been in the least humane or progressive.

Made in Dagenham is certainly a feel-good movie -- legitimately so, because of what these women accomplished and how the film gives them their due. If it cuts a few corners and compresses time, events and characters, it still shows us the black, the white and the gray with humor and smarts. And ultimately it's hard not to rejoice in the outcome and the progress that was made a few decades back -- and then plummeting to earth when you wonder what the hell happened to it all, as greed, wealth and right-wing power conspire to further erode government, democracy and any decent standard of living.

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