“I actually grew up close to the factory,” Cole tells me when we meet at the Toronto International Film Festival, where MADE IN DAGENHAM had its world premiere. “I was aware of the factory; I had never heard the story though.” The story Cole is referring to is the little strike that changed the world. When the Dagenham Ford plant women decided to strike, it was because their seamstress positions had been downgraded to unskilled worker status. Before long though, it became apparent to them that there was a much bigger battle to be had – the one for equal pay for women.
Their efforts would go on to change the world so how can their story be so obscure? If you’ve never heard it before, you needn’t worry; you’re not the only one. “When the producers came to me, I thought, ‘How could I not know this?’” And Cole actually went to school with other kids whose parents worked at the factory! “It was a really good reason to make the film. This is a story that people should learn.”
Cole tells this historical tale by honouring the facts and fictionalizing the home lives of the women involved. The strikers are led by Rita O’Grady, played by the luminescent, Sally Hawkins. Hawkins was first on board, even before Cole. “I was approached with a rough draft and Sally Hawkins and that was enough for me,” he says. “If it was just Sally I probably still would have signed up.” Rita, a reluctant leader at first, struggles to maintain her newfound duties as the leader of a major movement and her responsibilities to her family.
By taking us into their homes, Cole allows us to see how their struggle was hardly just on the picket lines. “The domestic stories are often inspired by many of the women who were there and are still alive now,” Cole tells me, as portraying them fairly and respectfully was a priority for him. “The structure of the story, how the strike developed, how Ford dealt with it, how the women dealt with it, how the politicians of the day were drawn in by it, is all exactly as it happened.” The perfect balance Cole strikes is one of the things that makes MADE IN DAGENHAM both enlightening and moving.
MADE IN DAGENHAM is Cole’s fifth film as a director, having gotten his start with the British indie successes, SAVING GRACE and CALENDAR GIRLS, films where the underdogs must defeat bigger establishments. “I’m always drawn to David and Goliath stories,” Cole declares proudly. That said, he has no interest in preaching to the converted. No, like every filmmaker out there, Cole wants as wide an audience as possible to see his work and here’s why. “There is no point in making films about social issues that are only seen by middle class liberals. I want to draw in a wide audience and maybe give them something to enjoy but where they actually learn something.”
Another characteristic that seems to be central to all of Cole’s work is its distinctly female voice. Yes, there is a heterosexual male behind the camera but the stories Cole tells are those that resonate more with the ladies. It’s nothing personal against the fellas. “Traditionally, men’s films are about things I’m not particularly interested in,” he says, an opinion I share. “I don’t relish the thought of shooting things or killing or torturing. There are plenty of male directors who do and I should just leave it to them.”
No, Cole sees himself a little differently. “I’m more of a girly man,” he jokes. “Women have a big effect on me in my life. I’m fascinated by them, that’s for sure.” And so Cole truly is a modern man, one in touch enough with his feminine side to not only champion their history on film but to actually get it right.
From a film critic’s perspective, I can genuinely say Cole did get it right. MADE IN DAGENHAM will delight all who see it, even the men who naturally assume they won’t. There’s only one way to know for certain whether Cole got it really right or not though and that would be to ask the women involved in the actual strike what they thought of the film. “I’m thrilled to tell you they loved it,” Cole exclaims, pride beaming from his face. “Its scary stuff because if they didn’t, it would be bad for the movie and bad for me to be able to sleep nights. They thought we caught the spirit of excitement they felt, the fun they had. They were glad we made it look like fun because they said it was.”
And so is the film. Equal fun for all!