Made in Dagenham

Made in Dagenham featured image

Reviewed by Marc Glassman

Nigel Cole, director
Billy Ivory, script
Starring: Sally Hawkins (Rita O’Grady), Daniel Mays (Eddie O’Grady), Miranda Richardson (Barbara Castle, Secretary of State), Rosamund Pike (Lisa), Jaime Winstone (Sandra), Bob Hoskins (Albert), Rupert Graves (Peter Hopkins), Kenneth Cranham (Monty Taylor), Andrea Riseborough (Brenda), Geraldine James (Connie)

Made in Dagenham is a funny, emotional evocation of a period when the working class was still radical–and the times they were a’changin’. In 1968, there was labour unrest around Europe, including in the Ford motor plant in Dagenham, then the biggest in the Continent. Initially encouraged by an old left-leaning male shop steward, the women in the sewing shop of the factory staged a strike, which quickly escalated into a landmark case for equal pay for women. Their story has finally become a film and is now suffused in nostalgia for a time and place, which has quickly receded into history.

Leading the ladies into battle is Rosie O’Grady, played by Sally Hawkins in a charming performance. Sadly, after only one major film, Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky, Hawkins is already in danger of being stereotyped as Britain’s feisty, down-to-earth, courageous female lead. Think Judy Holliday in the ’50s (Born Yesterday, The Bells Are Ringing) or Sally Fields in the ’70s and ’80s (Norma Rae, Murphy’s Romance) and you get the picture. Hawkins Is almost too perfectly cast as O’Grady, the hard-working factory labourer who takes up the “girls’ ” concerns in front of the Union, Management and eventually the Government.

Encouraging her along the way is another “type,” Bob Hoskins as Albert, an old-fashioned union guy, who happened to have been raised by a mother who never got equal pay despite being part of the union. This serves as his motivation for championing Rosie and the ladies until the only remarkable moment in the film occurs. With Rosie out of the room and her cause being denounced by union leaders, Albert takes on his own Labour organizers proudly proclaiming his Communist roots; he even dismissively refers to these flunkies (now toadying up to PM Harold Wilson’s ineffectual regime) as “comrades.”

The scene is never referred to again in a film, which plays its sexual and political cards, as the cliché would have it, “close to the chest.”

In contrast to salt-of-the-earth Rosie, Rosamund Pike plays Lisa, a Cambridge graduate now acting as “helpmate” to a Ford management organizer. Secretly, Lisa roots for Rosie: her main contribution to the tale is that she supplies the chic dress our labour organizer wears when she meets Wilson’s Secretary of State, Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson).

Director Nigel Cole, whose Calendar Girls about a group of women who posed nude for charity mined similar terrain, certainly has old-style feminist credentials and displays reasonable skill in getting natural performances from his obviously talented thespians.

Made in Dagenham is the kind of film you want to love. It’s a shame that there’s precious little conflict or character development or any kind of complexity in this sweet little period piece. Over the final credits, the real ladies of Dagenham, now grey haired and plump, recall their victory in amusing one-liners. It would be great to see a doc on these unpretentious heroines.

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