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Bob Hoskins
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"Made in Dagenham" | a film review by Gary Chew

GARY CHEW/Sacramento

Malcolm McDowell

The Ludovico technique

Who can ever forget the excruciating scene in Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" when the "good government" in Anthony Burgess's dystopian novel tethers Alex to a chair, and forces him to watch stark, violent images on a screen in order to brainwash away his need to practice what he and his Droogs have previously visited upon innocent citizens? If you'll remember, the "therapy" works. The Beethoven-loving Alex soon "understands" that beating defenseless people to death is frowned upon.

So it seems, the best way for me to describe Nigel Cole's "Made in Dagenham," might be to suggest you picture this: Sarah Palin is made to sit quietly and watch Cole's activist-fairytale, based on fact. Now, imagine that Mrs. Palin isn't allowed to get up from her seat and leave the cinema until she understands exactly---and fully---what Feminism is.

Seeing "Made in Dagenham" could make that happen, I suppose. Although I'm not sure how many screenings it might take, but all of them (whatever the number) would be presented in a very nonviolent manner, of course, just like the picture is: so upbeat and nonviolent as it delivers a message, strong and clear, about equal pay for equal work among men and women.

Comments about films that deal with labor/management strife are fraught with little rhetorical IEDs. For, as she or he "steps out into the line of fire" to discuss the issues at hand in such a movie, it's only natural to be a bit expectant that accusatory arrows could be slung the writer's way for being a Socialist or, even, that she or he is covertly carrying some kind of card on their person.

Sally Hawkins as Rita O'Grady

Sally Hawkins as Rita O'Grady

A solid argument could be made that Rita O'Grady, the heroine of "Made in Dagenham," is the most decent person alive in the 1960s world. She's a good mother, a good wife, a good housekeeper, an upbeat, loyal friend---a quick study, yet without arrogance. And like her husband, Eddie, she's got a fulltime job at Ford making family ends meet. (Truth be told: Rita reminds me of my mom.) What more could a guy ask for?

How about being the totally uncompromising shop steward for a band of rogue unionist females in a London burb who work at sewing machines in a Ford Motor sweatshop for, oh so much, lower pay than their male counterparts?

The 187 women are unionized with the guys, but are given shorter shrift than the machinist blokes since management has deemed them unskilled, which is shown to be bogus.

Rita (Sally Hawkins, "Never Let Me Go") is selected by Albert Passingham (Bob Hoskins, "Hollywoodland"), a middle-level union representative, to lead the female faction. That's when all hell breaks loose as the non-assuming, pleasant Mrs. O'Grady, in all her endearing naïveté calls for a "strike vote," that passes unanimously. Needless to say, the repercussions are felt all the way to the colonies in the state of Michigan.

Rosamund Pike, Rupert Graves and Robert Schiff

Rosamund Pike, Rupert Graves and Robert Schiff

A Robert Tooley (Richard Schiff, "The West Wing") at Mother Ford Headquarters gets on a plane and brings his American accent to the United Kingdom to see what he can do to keep down costs. Tooley is only a skosh more manipulative than the Brit union top boss.

That would be Monty Taylor, done by Kenneth Cranham ("A Good Year"). Playing slight-of-hand management/ union games with employees and members can make some managers and labor bosses say the darnedest things---most of them: different... depending on to whom they're being told.

William Ivory's "Made in Dagenham's" script is quite up front laying out the political territory the film would likely have to eventually navigate, if taken to extremes. Words such as "socialism," socialist" and "communist" are tossed about in one scene. But, as described by one of the UK Ford top brass: Mr. O'Grady (Daniel Mays, "Atonement") is politically moderate and, Rita, the little wife, apolitical. The couple and their two young children are simple, lower-middle-class people, living ordinary lives in a project-like, high-rise apartment complex.

Another UK Ford top manager, called Peter Hopkins (Rupert Graves, "Death at a Funeral"), is tense about the strike, too. But his stylish wife, Lisa (Rosamund Pike, "An Education"), has something deeply in common with the blue collar Rita: each has a son at school where there's a bullying teacher, for whom each mom is lobbying the headmaster to sack. There comes from this association a crossing of the natural class-distinction lines between two smart women looking to the best and common interests of their boys. Advanced degrees and income play no part in Rita and Lisa pairing-up for another kind of cause.

Tensions continue to a point where the male employees are hard-pressed to maintain support for their significant other in the dispute. Harsh moments intrude on the domesticity of the O'Grady's, and there's a more serious matter that arises for another striking woman and her disabled-vet husband who's giving his wife unconditional backing to fight on for respect and a better wage from a mid-60s Ford Motor Company.

In all fairness, I should say "Dagenham," concludes by indicating that, today, Ford is considered the standard for auto industry/employee relations.

Miranda Richardson

Miranda Richardson

Scene stealing her way through "Dagenham," in spite of the solid performances from everyone, especially Hawkins and Hoskins, look out for Miranda Richardson, seen most recently in the TV series, "Rubicon". Richardson plays the for-real, left wing political personage of the late Barbara Castle who held forth during the administration of Prime Minister Harold Wilson (John Sessions, "The Good Shepherd"). The lady kicks butt.

Ms. Richardson looks some like, and plays some like what Margaret Thatcher might appear from an even more recent political period of British history... albeit with a marked difference as to what kind of politics is professed. It could be, too, that Richardson conjured up a bit of Hillary Clinton to inject a modicum of fairness and balance bringing off the officious Barbara character.

With this film, Nigel Cole has not made another "The Grapes of Wrath" nor another "Norma Rae" and, surely, not a second "Silkwood." But there is in all the stew of this a harmonious vibration giving off from these three classic films about the working class that jiggles "Dagenham" to an extent that, surely, once again, tongues will be set to wagging in more than one direction over our varied and celebrated political spectrum.

"Made in Dagenham" official site.

Now in limited release.

See Yahoo Movies-Tulsa for theaters and times.

Gary Chew can be reached at garychew@comcast.net,
Facebook.com/justin.playfair and Twitter.com/orwellingly.

Copyright © 2010, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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