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Eugene Weekly : Movies : 1.20.11

Strike Won

In 1968, women fight for equal pay

by Jason Blair

MADE IN DAGENHAM: Directed by Nigel Cole. Written by Billy Ivory. Cinematography, John de Borman. Music, David Arnold. Starring Sally Hawkins, Miranda Richardson, Bob Hoskins and Rosamund Pike. Sony Pictures Classics, 2010. R. 113 minutes.

Made in Dagenham is the story of the Ford seamstresses who, during the summer of 1968, went on strike when they were reclassified as unskilled labor. Their job was to stitch seat covers, which is hard enough to say, let alone do, over and over without making a mistake. While the actual participants of the sewing machinists strike were employed at two different assembly plants, Made in Dagenham (rhymes with bubblegum) takes a cozier point of view, imagining a more coherent group housed conveniently under one roof. If only the convenience ended there. Loose, frilly and as morally complex as an episode of Laverne and Shirley, Made in Dagenham takes an epic struggle for equal rights and drenches it in melodrama and cliché.

It didnt have to be this way. While director Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls) has made a career out of loopy, conventional comedies, this time around hes enlisted Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky) as his leading lady. Hawkins, a slight brunette who resembles a young Lily Tomlin, specializes in perpetually befuddled women who discover their hidden strength. In Made in Dagenham, Hawkins portrays Rita, a competent, self-deprecating seamstress whose quivering voice is at odds with her extroverted peers. Note her early, brief confrontation with her sons abusive schoolteacher, after which shes left speechless by his arrogance. Were intended to see her as an afterthought, as a bystander in the upcoming labor dispute, but even casual viewers wont be fooled: This is the first and last time Rita will be dumbstruck in Made in Dagenham. So it follows that, in the very next scene, shes asked by her supervisor (a lively Bob Hoskins) to represent her fellow machinists at the union bargaining table. Based on what qualifications we can only guess, although guessing what comes next is all too easy in Made in Dagenham.

Such overly constructed, overly pat plotting is part of what holds back the film. To its credit, while Made in Dagenham is light-hearted, its also large-spirited in its treatment of the seamstresses, a cheeky bunch who are aided by a wealthy insider (Rosamund Pike, Never Let Me Go) and Secretary of State Barbara Castle (a wry Miranda Richardson). But the men of Dagenham are such oafs, such morons of universal thick-headedness, that their incompetence actually undermines the womens eventual victory. In short, these men are trampled too easily. Dagenham is hobbled by a movie version of history in which a couple of short, well-timed speeches can change peoples outlook ã and change the world. Whats more, the film adheres to its era like a pair of hot pants, at times seeming overly preoccupied with its day-glo costumes and "Wooly Bully” soundtrack. In other words, Dagenham resorts to old stereotypes about short skirts, tall hair and using sex to get mens attention. Its not a bust so much as a collection of busts in search of a better movie.