Nigel Cole is not the kind of director who becomes a hot topic on AICN with his action masterworks, nor is he the kind of helmer who makes cinephile hearts go aflutter with his unusual directing technique and highly idiosyncratic world view. That isn’t to say that Cole’s latest, “Made in Dagenham,” lacks a certain amount of flair. It’s style, however, takes a definite backseat to clever writing and consistently good, and sometimes remarkably outstanding, performances. Nothing at all wrong with that, especially in a world lacking in good movies about women, as well as movies you can, give or take a little British cursing, safely take Aunt Minnie or Uncle Irv to see. Indeed, even hardened cinephiles should appreciate this well-made and intelligent, if comfortably unambitious and deliberately crowd-pleasing, comedy based on a crucial but overlooked episode from late 20th century British history.
Written by William Ivory and saddled with a ridiculous R-rating, “Dagenham” is the partially fictionalized story of how the entirely fictional Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) moves from anonymous factory worker and devoted wife and mother to working full-time as a leader of what amounts to a nationwide labor movement. Bob Hoskins portrays an idealistic and goodhearted union leader who sets Rita on a path that at first has her leading the opposition to an unfair job classification for female textile workers at Ford Motors, and later has her deeply involved with a nationwide movement taking on the entire idea of paying men more than women simply because they are men.
Though supported by her loving but at times clueless husband (Daniel Mays), an extended strike creates inevitable strains. The story resolves itself as the affair gets the attention of real-life Labour Party legend, Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson, in a typically biting and hilarious turn), the first woman to attain cabinet status in a British government. Along the way, subplots involve the troubled marriage of her older best friend (Geraldine James) and her chance encounter with the “enemy,” Rosamund Pike as a fellow mom at her son’s school who also happens to be married to a key member of Ford Management (Rupert Graves).
Previously best known for the art-house hit “Calendar Girls” and his first feature, “Saving Grace,” a comedy about an aging pot grower starring Brenda Blethyn and Craig Ferguson, Cole comes across like the down-to-earth bloke you might expect to be behind this kind of a film. Middle-aged and not particularly pretty, he introduced himself as Sally Hawkins, who we’d be meeting a bit later alongside Miranda Richardson, for another roundtable chat, getting the expected laugh from the table full of entertainment journalists.
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As the press day began for director Nigel Cole and writer William Ivory’s amiable historical comedy, we assembled entertainment writers believed we’d be doing separate roundtable interviews with the film’s best known actresses. When Sally Hawkins and Miranda Richardson entered the room together to promote “Made in Dagenham,” about a 1968 strike by female workers at a Ford plant located in a grimy London suburb, however, it was easy to be a little overwhelmed. Either one of them is worthy of a Russian novel’s worth of questions and our time would be limited.
Like so many first-class English actors of her generation, Miranda Richardson is known for her ability to play all ends of the dramatic spectrum. In England, and certain geekier quarters of the U.S., she’s still extremely well known known for her work alongside Rowan Atkinson and Stephen Fry as “Queenie” (i.e. Queen Elizabeth I) and assorted other characters on Richard Curtis and Ben Elton’s historical cult-com, “Black Adder.” Younger geeks, however, might know her better as magical tabloid journalist Rita Skeeter in the Harry Potter films. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, she has also done magnificent work playing a ruthless IRA operative in “The Crying Game,” a maltreated housewife in an Oscar-nominated role in Louis Malle’s “Damage,” a widely praised turn in the Oscar-winning “The Hours,” and a widow investigating her husband’s death on AMC’s recently canceled suspense drama, “Rubicon.” On the other hand, she’s also portrayed the character of Mrs. Santa Claus opposite Paul Giamatti‘s Santa in “Fred Claus.” Despite some resemblance, both physically and in terms of talent, she is not part of the famed Redgrave acting dynasty and no relation to the late Natasha Richardson. She is, in fact, the only actor in her family, which perhaps makes her all the more impressive.
Although Sally Hawkins has appeared in some 34 movie and TV productions since 1999, she broke into the consciousness of most of her fans with her Golden Globe winning performance in Mike Leigh’s 2008 “Happy-Go-Lucky,” in which she dominated the film as a relentlessly happy and, strangely enough, rather bright, elementary school teacher. It was probably an ideal role for a woman who really does come across as cheerful in person, with an approachable demeanor that certainly seems to fit the child of two children’s books authors. Currently starring on Broadway in a new production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” Hawkins has continued to mix starring roles with a number of smaller supporting appearances, including a turn in Cary Fukunaga’s highly-anticipated new version of “Jane Eyre.” Her next leading role is as Irish radical politician and activist Bernadette Devlin in “The Roaring Girl” — assuming the real Devlin is not successful in her efforts to prevent the film from being made.
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