Made in Dagenham (2010)

Dir. Nigel Cole. Starring Sally Hawkins, Geraldine James, Daniel Mays

There’s a strand of thought which automatically equates what’s right with vegetarianism. One does it because it’s healthy, or good for the planet, or because it’s more ethical than eating animals. One doesn’t do it because it opens the palate to the widest possible range of flavor and experience; it is a diet which is inherently limiting. Feminism, and feminism in film, cannot just be vegetarianism. Heck, it should be more than just eating vegetables. Made in Dagenham is steamed broccoli: predictable, bland, and full of vitamins.

Interestingly, Made in Dagenham pulls away from the historical record by creating a whole new cast of characters; the little people are made new. (People whose names are in textbooks or have “Prime Minister” in front of them get to keep those.) Rose Boland becomes Rita O’Grady (Hawkins), and for dramatic emphasis her peers are likewise renamed and remade. There’s a moment where Rosamund Pike tells Sally Hawkins that she spent her sparkling time at university reading about doers of great deeds, and encourages her to do the great deeds as well; there’s Oedipus-level irony in this sequence between two made-up women having a conversation about remembering historical individuals and what they’d done. Not for nothing, incidentally, are they Rosamund Pike and Sally Hawkins and Andrea Riseborough and Jamie Winstone. The strikers from the Dagenham plant were older than the named characters from this movie, who are, with the exception of James’ Connie, topped out around mid-30s. Never before have I cared about the change in appearance from a real person to a fictionalized character, but there’s something offputting about how glamorous the seamstresses are. Hawkins acts her part well, but her historical counterpart was heavyset and unattractive, certainly not the “Revlon Revolutionary” that Rita is labeled as. It’s exacerbated in the shop as well, where in late May the women habitually get down to their bras to work in the stifling London heat; after all, in that part of the year it usually hits a sweltering 70 degrees! (Is it uncouth to mention that the director and screenwriter were men? How incredible it is that this project about women, empowerment, and second-wave feminism in the workplace had a male director, writer, editor, and DP. There is always more room for women’s voices and perspectives to come through in film, but in this of all films, shouldn’t there have been room for more input or, gasp, control, from women?)

We’ve come full circle in casting from the days of the old studio system in Made in Dagenham. The look of a character, especially to project realism on the film, has been made subservient to movie star looks or name recognition. Ken Loach, for all his flaws, would never have cast beauties when beauties were not called for (and neither would Mike Leigh, who is blameless and holy, and neither did John Schlesinger or Tony Richardson or Karel Reisz). This would be a far more powerful movie if the film had been populated with normal folks like the normal folks of the real strike. This is to say nothing of how the movie from time to time cuts in documentary footage, either of the men who disparage the right of women to earn equal pay or of the strikers themselves, who show up at the end. Nothing could do more to eviscerate the realism of the film. In the same way, everyone in the film acts as a kind of anachronism. Heaven knows that there are plenty of movies about the struggle between labor and capital in the industrial English workplace, but even the most sensational and ridiculous of these—The Man in the White Suit and I’m All Right Jack, respectively—are at least products of their time. Here is a period piece that is a little too knowing about the late ’60s, that is a showcase for costume and makeup which fills out a bingo sheet and in lieu of creating character. Riseborough is saddled with a great beehive, but she is the only one with a beehive, as if the film is worried that some audience member will decry the realism of the piece if no one has such a coiffure.

Worst of all is the film’s anachronistic attitude to the strike itself. It is obvious to us in 2010 that the women should be paid as much as the men, but it is clearly not obvious to the men surrounding the strike. The film, by making history into a spectacle—by making history the story of an arc of progress instead of the story of exploitation and ignorance—chooses sunny and mindless entertainment over something that lingers. What a strange choice it is for Brenda (Riseborough) to ask for whiskey instead of sherry at the group’s meeting with Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson, playing Emma Thompson). It makes sense for the “bad girl” image they’ve created for Brenda, who seems to be a responsible person, but I doubt very much if there was any booze at all in that meeting. It’s cheap. We know women can drink whiskey too. We’re not going to shout, “You go, girl!” at the screen when Brenda breaks the glass ceiling of beverage choices. The film also makes the final private interaction between Rita and Castle a conversation about clothes. It turns out that they actually own the same piece of clothing, proving that both of them are thrifty types, and that women making history always have time to natter on about clothes. I cannot understand either choice, for these characters are already thoroughly humanized, capable of humor, and likable: what is the movie trying to accomplish with these vapid asides when the problem is on the cusp of fixing?

It is inevitable that the story will put a little wedge between Rita and her husband, Eddie (Mays), and the story places and then hammers that wedge with the dire predictability we usually expect from low-budget horror. Rita spends more and more of her time striking; Eddie spends more and more of his time cooking (badly, with smoke), waiting for the laundry to be done, taking the kids to school, etc. Eventually Eddie wants to have it out, although his case for “I’m a good husband” is transparently based on “I don’t do bad things to you,” which Rita immediately shoots down. Thanks for not hitting me, I guess, she says, and storms off to make a speech which convinces the union to stand behind her. It’s a scene which I suppose is marked “GREAT EMOTIONAL UPHEAVAL” in the screenplay, but how can it move us? I heard the entire scene as soon as I saw Mays’ pasty face and knew that the seamstresses were going on strike. Somehow this is more powerful than the story of Connie and her husband, a World War II vet who never recovered from the war. He hangs himself, and it’s a relief; the asides to Connie are friction on a story which cannot afford it.

And somehow even that outstrips the plight of Sandra (Winstone), who dreams of being a model while she sews seats. The diabolical Ford deputy sent to England to fix the strike, Tooley (Richard Schiff), all but taps his fingers together when he tosses the personnel files to a couple of managers and says, “Everybody has a weakness.” (The less said about Tooley as a character, the better. Every note Schiff has is evident in ten minutes of an episode of The West Wing, and none of them are improved upon in Made in Dagenham. ) Sandra’s weakness is that she’ll trade a photoshoot for returning to work, and so we must suffer through a photoshoot, a tearful confession of how badly she wants to not work in a factory, and ultimately another shot of a woman in her underwear.

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