Made in Dagenham
Sort of a British “Norma Rae,” “Made in Dagenham” is a well-acted tale about female auto workers demanding equal pay in the late 1960s.
It’s a classic underdog story whose outcome is never in doubt and in which the lines between the good guys and the bad are practically marked onscreen in highlighter pen.
Sally Hawkins plays the Sally Field role of the low-key worker who rises up to become a respected leader of the union. As Rita O’Grady, Hawkins has a slightly awkward sort of beauty, the sort of woman who has to be told what a gem she is before she believes it herself. Hawkins used this quality to full effect in “Happy-Go-Lucky” a couple of years ago.
Director Nigel Cole brings the same sort of energy he did to 2003’s “Calendar Girls,” about another group of plucky women who discover they’re a lot more capable than anyone gave them credit for. William Ivory’s script, though, follows the diagram of a screenwriting class to a T, so we know the progression of the gals’ struggle before it happens.
For example, Rita’s husband, Eddie (Daniel Mays), will be fully supportive at first, getting a kick out of seeing his wife photographed in newspapers and on the telly. But then there will be growing discord as he’s forced to take up more of the cooking and cleaning at home, followed by a big spat when his own job is imperiled, culminating in rapprochement where he tells her how proud he is.
The story also tends to treat the other women as scenery rather than distinct individuals. There’s the slutty one (Andrea Riseborough), the cute one who wants to be a model (Jaime Winstone) and so forth. Only Connie (Geraldine James), the steadfast older shop steward, is given anything like another dimension, including some trouble on the home front.
I didn’t care for the wife of one of the company managers (Rosamund Pike), who befriends Rita without even realizing they live in separate camps. An educated, smart woman who resents having to bury her talents beneath her husband’s, she secretly eggs the working girls on. The whole thing is a little too pat.
The history-lesson aspect of the film is certainly engaging, though. In the 1960s, Ford was the largest auto manufacturer in Europe, employing some 40,000 workers in England alone. The gals of the machinists union in Dagenham, some 187 of them, were classified as unskilled laborers and paid considerably less than their male counterparts — quite often their own husbands and brothers.
Bob Hoskins plays Albert, a union organizer impressed by the gumption of the women during a relatively minor disagreement with management. He encourages Rita to strike for equal pay — much to the consternation of the union bosses.
Miranda Richardson plays Barbara Castle, the first (and still only) female British secretary of state, who was tasked with tamping down the machinist strike and keeping Ford happy.
Richard Schiff shows up as a Ford exec sent over from the States to twist some arms. He bellows and rants: We can’t pay these women the same as men, because then women all over the world will want the same thing!
Of course, Ford eventually acquiesced, became something of a pioneer on gender equality and even cooperated with the making of this film. So even the bad guys turn out to be decent blokes.
Sally Hawkins is eminently watchable, but it’s too bad “Made in Dagenham” feels like it rolled off another kind of assembly line.