It is regrettable for British cinema’s stature that our home-grown filmmakers are so often keen to reinforce those romanticised stereotypes of our cinematic output as being “twee” and “quirky”, because it runs the risk of reducing fascinating truths to disposable truisms. ‘Made in Dagenham‘ chronicles the famous 1968 strike by female machinists at Ford’s Dagenham factory, which in turn instigated the Equal Pay Act 1970, and while there is a power to this tale of triumph, it is measured against the cold calculation of the familiar Brit-com treatment.
The strikers certainly had a fight on their hands back in 1968; Ford employed 187 women to stitch materials for their cars, compared to 55,000 men who worked there. Ultimately led by the heroic Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins), the women, with the help of their shift supervisor, Albert (Bob Hoskins), rolled out a progressive pattern of industrial action which saw them eventually – albeit through great financial and personal adversity – come to a mutual agreement with Ford.
Through and through, ‘Made in Dagenham’ is unsurprisingly all about female assertiveness, not only with regard to pay grades, but to assuming dominant roles when men either won’t or aren’t around to do so, such as when Rita – whose husband is an oafish layabout for most of the pic – confronts a smarmy teacher (Andrew Lincoln) who has been punishing her son with too much relish. As much as it is about gender, writer Billy Ivory is also deeply concerned with class; this is a classic story of working class, Essex council estate folk facing off against fearless stuffed shirts, who sit comfortably in seats of seemingly inscrutable power, that is, until Rita takes them to task.
For its flaws, of which there are many, Dagenham is inherently watchable because of the dedicated cast. Hawkins is a major plus as the protagonist, encapsulating every admirable aspect of an emancipated woman; strength, integrity, physical attractiveness, and all this without losing passion and vulnerability. Bob Hoskins is good fun as the film’s only moderately likeable male character, though even he is more of a comic relief aside than a fully developed component. Miranda Richardson, meanwhile, plays Secretary of State Barbara Castle with amusing verve, hamming it up as though back on the ‘Blackadder’ set, while also nailing some comic zingers without seeming too cute.
‘The West Wing’s’ Richard Schiff, as a ruthlessly efficient American delegate from Ford, does not play a likeable man here, yet he is very good given the role’s brevity. In terms of the film’s representation of males, he may be callous and stern, but at least he is not a quaking buffoon like just about every other male Ford employee therein.
However, a general satisfaction with the prescribed formula is what holds this back from being anything more than a well-shot if fairly generic British comedy; it is light and mildly witty, keen to mix comic and dramatic interpretations of the grass-roots movement, yet it never takes off fully due to the lack of a visceral punch for such a powerful story. Rather lazily, the film goes through the motions of recruiting Rita with lackadaisical pace, and the casual use of Hoskins as the voice of exposition is bone idle.
There are, however, several interesting social notions that the film hones in on very well, chiefly of how, even today, men are incredibly reliant on women within the homogeneous dynamic of the nuclear family, to the point that any extension of a man – his children, the clothes he has to wash, his meals – often falls to pieces without the presence of a maternal figure. How this notion of the symbiotic relationship between men and women extends to the film’s greater morality – of how, when the women go on strike, they are essentially threatening the men’s livelihoods also – is perhaps the film’s sharpest bit of scripting. The subsequent knock-on effect of the strike bleeding into Rita’s personal life with her husband is among the film’s most validly affecting drama.
Unfortunately, the general trajectory paints in broad strokes, picking at dramedy clichés; Rosamund Pike’s repressed intellectual housewife character creeps in to make a smart remark before slinking off again, and there is a rather tangential subplot involving one of the women’s mentally ill husbands, which adds no greater context while dragging things out beyond reason. The film’s depiction of men in general – as doe-eyed slackers scared of female empowerment – is quite tiresome, for even Hoskins’ noble character is the butt of joke after joke. Also, the film rushes through the conclusive stages, resulting in an incredible simplification of the legal process.
It isn’t that humour doesn’t suit something like this well, because it does, but the quaint, toothless inoffensiveness of it all stilts its power as a depiction of an event of huge social and historical importance. Hawkins’ role, with adequate support from the foreign press enamoured with just such fare, may be enough to push her to an Oscar nomination, while the rest lacks the substance to go far. It is a natural crowd-pleaser though, and it is fun enough without being torturous, yet a far sharper and more powerful film was possible.
Made in Dagneham is released in the U.K. on Friday.