In 2008, Sally Hawkins proved herself to be a strong actress with her daring performance in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. She has appeared in various small, but important, roles since then–none of which have allowed her the space to achieve a similar performance. While she doesn’t quite reach the standard set three years ago, her newest starring role is really something to behold. Made in Dagenham is something of a return to form for Hawkins, and a reassuring promise that great things are yet to come.
Made in Dagenham is a film about strong women who refused to obey the oppressive societal standards they had to live by, and dared to improve the system. Naturally, Sally Hawkins fills the lead perfectly as Rita O’Grady, the woman who inspired a generation when she began a strike against Ford Motor Company. She was one of 187 women employed at the Dagenham plant, where she and her coworkers toiled endlessly as machinists (they had the job of stitching the leather together to create the seat cushions). Due to a change in pay structure, in which Ford created various skill levels upon which to base an employee’s salary, the women found themselves all re-graded to “unskilled labor.”
This begins the dispute of the film, which quickly escalates when their male lawyers and counselors strike up compromises with each other, compromises that the women will not abide. For the first time in history, they go on strike. And upon realizing that their strike accomplished little and Ford is entirely unwilling to budge, they begin travelling the country gearing other machinists up to strike as well.
All of this social upheaval is only one aspect of the film, though. If it were simply about the one-sided quest for justice, and all of the spoils that come with it, it honestly would not have kept my attention. But the film chooses to show all of the downsides as well. Rita’s marriage begins to feel the grating tension of her constant absence–yes she travels for a noble purpose, but at home resentment begins to build. Her husband is now forced to feed to kids, take them to school, and do other things he considers womanly. But he is not painted as a villain. One of the characters even quotes Betty Friedan – “Men weren’t really the enemy — they were fellow victims suffering from an outmoded masculine mystique that made them feel unnecessarily inadequate when there were no bears to kill.”
Some things must be sacrificed in order to quell injustice. Comfort, sleep, even short-term happiness must all be laid on the line, because if you challenge the titan that is Ford (or by extension the titan that is a societal depiction of gender) you cannot look away for a second. You can’t even blink. These women are admirable not just for standing up, but for refusing to sit back down. They show us here how easy it is to back away, how easy it is to avert your gaze in the face of social injustice, and yet they refuse to do so.
If this were a mere Hollywood concoction, if it were some fictional event, it would not carry the weight that it does. The fact that these events actually occurred, perhaps with a bit of embellishment for thematic purposes, is jaw dropping. It is inspiring. The women’s lives practically crumble around them, as their husbands lose their jobs and their unions betray them, and yet there is a gleam in Sally Hawkins’ eye that seems entirely impossible to fake: a gleam of hope and despair, a gleam of tragedy and perseverance. It is the gleam created by a tear held back for fear of showing weakness, entirely representative of any revolutionary who is forced to choose between what they love, what is easy, and what is right. It is the gleam of history in the making.