Made in Dagenham Review
A Very British Revolution might be an appropriate alternative title for Made in Dagenham - if Martin Bell hadn’t already used it for his book on the recent MP expenses scandal. This true story of how an extraordinary legal precedent was set by a group of female machinists from the Ford Dagenham plant should perhaps be better known than it is. Their three-week strike in protest at having their jobs reclassified as unskilled – and therefore getting paid much less than their male counterparts– led to car production there grinding to a halt. It took the intervention of another woman also trying to make her way in a male-dominated profession, Employment Secretary Barbara Castle, to resolve the dispute, and in the process pave the way for the landmark 1970 Equal Pay Act.
It’s undoubtedly an inspirational story, and for the most part Nigel Cole’s film does it justice. The script by Billy Ivory naturally takes liberties with some events, and the Dagenham girls themselves are all fictionalised. Sally Hawkins stars as Rita, one of 187 women who work as sewing machinists at the Dagenham plant, who shrug off the poor working conditions like the leaky roof and the stifling heat (many quickly stripping down to their underwear at the start of the day on the all-female shop floor, to the embarrassment of supervisor Bob Hoskins).
The issue of pay, however, is a quite different and altogether more contentious matter. When the trade union invites shop steward Connie (Geraldine James) to join the opening negotiations with Ford’s management aimed at resolving the issue, Rita is asked to come along too, being well known among the girls for her quick-thinking and no-nonsense outlook. But when it becomes clear that neither Ford nor the union are interested in a speedy solution that equalises payment, Rita’s patience is quickly exhausted.
This is the sort of underdog story that British cinema used to excel at – the ordinary man (or woman) taking on their superiors and striking a blow for justice and common decency. Ealing did it a few times, and Made in Dagenham takes a leaf out of their book by keeping the story grounded but also firmly feelgood. It has its darker moments, particularly when the effects of the stoppage start to bite at home. Tensions rise between workmates as more and more employees are laid off from the plant, while Rita’s husband Eddie (Daniel Mays) feels increasingly abandoned as his wife criss-crosses the country visiting other factories to bolster support for their cause. It’s not exactly Ken Loach, but it does help to underline the fact that the stakes were very high for these women.
Performances are all strong, especially that of Hawkins. The chirpy Rita’s self-assuredness in her new role as revolutionary and rebel surprises both her husband and herself, and her struggle with family, friends and the law is the film’s pulse. Stalwarts Hoskins, Richardson and James offer their usual sturdy support, and Rosamund Pike is also rather good as a Cambridge-educated teacher at the local school who just happens to be married to the manager of the Ford plant (Rupert Graves). Director Cole captures the milieu of the factory setting and the period well; the sense of community amongst the workers is tangible, as are the prejudices held by the exclusively male elite.
The chief weakness is the script’s resorting to rather stale stereotypes. The rote characterisation means there’s little to surprise the audience: each individual’s arc is all too predictable, and this extends as far as some of their dialogue. The occasional forays in to light farce are also uninspired; the bumbling civil servant double act who report to Barbara Castle is old-fashioned comedy in the worst sense. It’s a safe, straightforward film, devoid of any sharp edges or unexpected turns, which is perhaps something of a shame when its subject matter aroused such controversy at the time. Yet it is still an enjoyably uplifting piece, crowd-pleasing in all the right moments and effectively capturing a key turning point in twentieth century history.