Made In Dagenham

A version of this review appeared in The Age, October 28, 2010.

Nigel Cole's comedy-drama is based on a true story that deserves to be better-known: how a 1968 strike by female machinists at a Ford motor plant in Dagenham led to legislation guaranteeing equal pay for British women. Summed up like that, the film sounds more worthy than exciting, but Made In Dagenham can be recommended as rousing feelgood entertainment, with as many first-rate British actors as any instalment of Harry Potter. One could even imagine the material adapted into a stage musical in the tradition of The Pajama Game (1957) – or Calendar Girls (2003), Cole's biggest previous hit.

The film clearly labels its characters as heroes, villains or sources of comic relief, leaving no room for doubt about the justice of the strikers' cause. Still, within these limits William Ivory's screenplay is thoughtful and intelligent, maximising drama through the interplay of multiple points of view. Thus a sympathetic union negotiator (Bob Hoskins) is pitted against a dyed-in-the-wool left-wing chauvinist (Kenneth Cranham) mainly anxious to preserve his job. Likewise, the strikers themselves are not all equally committed to the cause: Connie (Geraldine James) is loyal first and foremost to her sick husband (Roger Lloyd-Pack), while Sandra (Jaime Winstone), just wants to quit the factory and become a Carnaby Street model.

Nor are the ruling-class figures necessarily aligned with the forces of darkness: the strikers find an unlikely ally in the Cambridge-educated Lisa (Rosamund Pike), frustrated in her marriage to the plant boss (Rupert Graves). Even less plausibly, Miranda Richardson plays the Secretary of State Barbara Castle as a pantomime fairy godmother.

Best of all is Sally Hawkins in the star part of Rita O'Grady, a battling mother of two who reluctantly becomes the leader of the strike. Even better here than she was in
Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), Hawkins does everything she can to suggest psychological complexity in between the lines of the script – though the portrait of a shy woman discovering her own exceptional gifts slightly undermines the supposed emphasis on collective, working-class struggle. As the closing credits rolled I expected to learn that Rita went on to become a Member of Parliament at the very least; as it turns out, the character is wholly fictitious, and the real-life strikers glimpsed in archival footage have little of Hawkins' youth and charisma.

All the same, Rita's climactic feminist rebuke to her husband (Daniel Mays) is a welcome counter to the nostalgia for 1960s chauvinism found in a recent film like The Boat That Rocked. In most other respects, Made in Dagenham hardly qualifies as a political film at all – at least not by the militant standards of a Ken Loach. The lost world in which union leaders quote Marx to one another is depicted with as much irony as nostalgia. But Ivory and Cole are probably wise not to spoil the upbeat mood by reminding us of the subsequent difficulties of the British labor movement – or the fact that Ford's Dagenham plant stopped making cars years ago.

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