Sometimes it’s all right to fight.
That’s not an easy pearl of wisdom for me to swallow, given the fact I’ve got two wrestling, roughhousing sons under the age of seven who look for any excuse to chuck knuckles. The broken record that has become my voice constantly lectures, “Stop fighting.” But I’m changing my tune, and will start explaining the difference between the right and wrong time to pick a fight.
Rita O’Grady, the heroine of Nigel Cole’s embraceable Made In Dagenham, learned this valuable lesson in 1968 when the Ford Motor Company refused to pay female machinists equal pay. Though she didn’t ask for it, O’Grady became the spokesperson for the feminist movement, paying the consequences at home but reaping the benefits in public eye as she waged a war that needed to be won. (Coincidentally, wronged CIA agent Valerie Plame also figures out the value of picking and choosing her battles in Doug Liman’s Fair Game, also in theaters, though that film’s a dry history lesson where Cole’s import is pure crowd-pleaser.)
In this corner, weighing in a 95 pounds soaking wet, is inimitable Sally Hawkins, who beamed with the explosive radiance of a supernova through Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky but comes back down to Earth to play O’Grady. She’s one of several reasons why we willingly hop on board with this film’s mission. Granted, it takes time. Cole frontloads his comedy with thick, Cockney slang, almost daring us Yanks to keep up with the rapid-fire dialogue. At times I begged for subtitles, but Hawkins and her formidable team made it easy to comprehend the weight of their actions.
To be fair, how much would they really have to do? The women of the automotive plant seeking equality in the workplace are natural underdogs barking at immoveable labor beasts like Ford’s executive branch and their own labor representatives. Convincing an audience to side with these feisty females is, for Cole, as challenging as shooting fish in a barrel.
And yet Hawkins helps put a human face on the women’s fight by coloring Rita with self-doubt and uncertainty. She neither a type-A born leader nor a mindless follower, and Hawkins finds plenty of rich emotional material to play with in that fertile middle ground. It’s a joy watching scenes spring to life as Rita, staring down this fear that she’s in over her head, suddenly realizes she actually has the fortitude to succeed in this mission and lead this historical charge toward equality.
Sometimes that pivotal injection of confidence can be seen flashing across Hawkins’ expressive face. Sometimes it’s passionately relayed by a co-star — the fantastic Rosamund Pike, for example — who believes in O’Grady’s battle cry but isn’t allowed to shout it quite as loudly. Sometimes, as in the film’s most empowering scene, it’s beautifully timed with the trying on of a significant red dress. Every time, it induces applause from a supportive audience.
Dagenham wouldn’t deflate without Hawkins. The story’s too significant and the underdog beats too entrenched in our movie-going psyche for it not to resonate with most patrons on some gut level. But she certainly punches up Cole’s diligent, unadorned, punch-the-clock filmmaking with her humor, tenderness, fortitude and screen presence. Simply put, Hawkins makes Made in Dagenham — an already good film — that much better.