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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Sally Hawkins is the belle of the ball at the Toronto Film Festival

September 14, 2010 |  6:03 pm

Sally_hawkins She's hardly a household name in America, but Sally Hawkins is a major rising star in British film and theater circles, perhaps best known for her 2008 Golden Globe winning performance in Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky." Now she's a big hit in the Great White North as well, having pulled off the hat trick of having three buzzed-about movies at the Toronto Film Festival. She has a small but pivotal role in Mark Romanek's "Never Let Me Go," which is being distributed by Fox Searchlight and opens here Wednesday.

The 34-year-old actress from South London is also in "Submarine," an oddball Welsh coming-of-age comedy that has earned her plaudits from Ben Stiller, one of the film's producers, who raved about Hawkins' "amazing comic performance." But my favorite film of the bunch is "Made in Dagenham," a Nigel Cole-directed movie about a tumultuous female factory worker strike that unfolded in 1968 at a Ford plant outside London. The strike, which spread to other British cities, was only resolved after the female  workers were guaranteed the right for equal pay with men, a settlement that was eventually adopted by other industrialized nations. (The film, distributed by Sony Classics, is due in theaters later this fall.)

Hawkins plays Rita O'Grady, a mild-mannered auto worker who is transformed by the strike into a firebrand, leading her working-class cohorts into action, not only against the snooty, upper-class Ford executives but against the middle-aged  phonies running her union, who until the women take charge seem perfectly happy to ignore the women's complaints about primitive working conditions in order to keep their cushy jobs. Hawkins gets to act opposite a wonderful array of U.K. talent, notably Bob Hoskins, who plays a wily union rep who becomes a trusted ally, and Miranda Richardson, who plays Barbara Castle, a legendarily feisty Labour Party politician who, as the country's first secretary of State, was responsible for acceding to most of the women strikers' demands.

Hawkins is something of a staunch social activist herself, responding to a question I posed about whether England's class system is as strong today as it was at the time of the strike by saying, "There will always be very greedy, very rich people who desperately want to hang on to their money--that's what we're suffering from in our country right now." For her, the best thing about having done the film is knowing that it might remind young audiences that it wasn't so long ago that women had to fight long and hard for equality.

"I suspect that not a lot of younger people in the U.K. know much about the history of this strike--I certainly didn't, sad to say," she explained, speaking, via phone, from her dressing room at the Roundabout Theatre in New York, where she's appearing with Cherry Jones in George Bernard Shaw's "Mrs. Warren's Profession. "My parents were the ones who were most intrigued by the script, especially my mother, who remembered how much it meant at the time to see these regular women taking charge, making a difference in people's lives."

To bone up for her part, which is a composite of several women who took leading roles in the strike, Hawkins met some of the women workers who still reside in Dagenham. It's a hardscrabble area in far eastern London that, to hear Hawkins tell it, sounds an awful lot like neighborhoods in Detroit and Flint, Mich., that have been hit hard by the fall of the automobile business. "It's sad to see the place now," she told me. "The Ford factory has closed down and all that's left is this giant empty shell, totally deserted. Dagenham was really built around Ford, so having the factory closed has hurt everyone. They've taken a real knock."

Hawkins was impressed by the women she met, especially when she discovered that they'd all remained as down to earth as ever. "They still look out for each other," she said. "But what struck me the most was how they knew what they'd done and how much they'd accomplished, but they went right back to their old lives. They weren't impressed by the legacy they left and they certainly weren't impressed by our being there filming."

For me, what makes the film work so well is that it doesn't treat its story as a weighty political screed. It is loaded with raucous humor, much of it thanks to Hoskins and Richardson, who steal nearly every scene they're in. "I was totally starstruck or certainly slightly giggly around them," Hawkins admits. "I've always been in awe of Miranda and Bob, well he was Uncle Bob to us. I think all the girls in the cast fell in love with him." The movie also has great music from the period, with songs from the Small Faces, Traffic and Desmond Dekker, whose proto-reggae hit, "Israelites," opens the film.

The film's most potent sociopolitical observations are made through sly storytelling, as when we see the Ford executive treating his glamorous wife, who read history at Oxford, with just as much condescension as he treats the working class strikers. His dismissive behavior quietly turns his wife--played by Rosamund Pike-- into a sisterly strike sympathizer, prompting her to lend her smart designer dress to Hawkins when she needs something fancy to wear to meet the secretary of State. 

Hawkins has few illusions about how much things have changed for women in the workplace. At one point, I asked her, when it came to women's rights and opportunities, who was more backward--Ford in 1968 or Hollywood in 2010? What did she say?

"You tell me," she responded with an uneasy laugh. "It's outrageous how women in the film industry are paid less than men all the time. I went to a very good school where we were encouraged to be as independent and strong as we liked and it was quite a shock when I got out into the world to discover how women were patronized and undermined in the workplace."

As for Hollywood, Hawkins said that one of her good friends, a female writer-director, has come up against workplace double standards all the time. The actress is unimpressed by people who take special pride in Kathryn Bigelow having been the first woman director to win a directing Oscar. "It outrages me that it took so long for a woman to win the award, and that it was so unprecedented that everyone had to make such a fuss over it," she says. "It's infuriating the way men dominate everything, from TV in the U.K. to indie films to studio pictures. It really bugs me."

She lets out a world-class sigh. "I loved working with Nigel Cole on this film, but I have to say that now that I think about it, considering what the movie has to say, wouldn't it have been great if 'Made in Dagenham' had been directed by a woman? That would be a real sign of progress, wouldn't it?" 

You can watch the trailer for the film right here:


Photo: Sally Hawkins, posing for a portrait while promoting "Made in Dagenham" at the Toronto Film Festival. Credit: Carlo Allegri / Associated Press