A dramatisation of the 1968 strike at the Ford Dagenham car plant, where female workers walked out in protest against sexual discrimination.
Director Nigel Cole follows up his film Calendar Girls (2003), the winning story of a group of working class gals who took on the establishment and won, with Made in Dagenham, the winning story of a group of working class gals who took on the establishment and won. Apart from setting and cast, there is little to distinguish the two films – both celebrate female empowerment with a cheeky spirit and strong cast, and both reach their pre-ordained feel-good finale despite some structurally wobbly storytelling in the second act.
Made in Dagenham recounts the landmark 1968 industrial action brought by the women of car manufacturer Ford’s upholstery stitching workshop against their employer over inequality in their pay and perceived sexual discrimination. Rallied by supervisor Albert (Bob Hoskins) and led by senior-stitcher Rita (Sally Hawkins), the diverse but united group of women first bring the American automotive giant to its knees and then take their fight for equal-pay to the hallowed halls of British parliament, where newly-installed minister Barbara Castle (a fiery Miranda Richardson) takes up their cause.
In telling the story of how these women brought about one of the most sweeping periods of change in England’s industrial history, Cole exhibits a warm touch with the human side of the women’s plight. Rita’s husband Eddy (the likable Daniel Mays) is supportive but struggles with his wife’s newfound focus and drive; the aging Connie (Geraldine James) must deal with a husband suffering through undiagnosed post-traumatic stress, following his stint in the RAF during World War II; and all the women are forced to deal with the crippling poverty and associated tensions that an extended period of strike action brings upon the community of commission flats in which most of the factory workers live.
Billy Ivory’s screenplay also effortlessly defines the classless nature of the injustice British women were forced to endure in the mid 1960s. Rita’s somewhat-accidental friendship with Lisa (a supremely-photogenic Rosamund Pike), the upper-middle class wife of the snivelling plant boss (Rupert Graves), indicates just how unifying the struggle for social and sexual equality was to half the nation’s population.
The film stumbles, however, in its attempts to detail too many of the worker’s stories. The mid-section of the film ebbs and flows between Rita, Connie, the vampish Brenda (Andrea Riseborough) and kittenish Sandra (Jaime Winstone); each of the characters get their moment in the spotlight but none are afforded enough solid exposition to hold viewer interest. Cole and Ivory find themselves in a predicament, to be sure – too little coverage would have painted the women as caricatures, but the scenes that are meant to flesh them out and bridge the rallying set-up and the rousing pay-off ring somewhat hollow.
Also hard done by is Bob Hoskin’s Albert, who plays an integral part in giving Rita the courage to fight the good fight all the way to Downing Street, but who entirely disappears from the film in its final act. An early scene in which Albert tells Rita of his own fatherless upbringing and the strength his mother and aunt showed in the face of diversity is pivotal – it provides the emotional core that alters the destiny of Rita and, ultimately, the entire female workforce of Britain. That Albert and Rita never get too acknowledge each other’s share bond and achievement is a major flaw in the film’s denouement.
Hawkins, who made a big splash two years ago as Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, struggles at times with her character. Switching in a breath from twitchy, nervous and overwhelmed to determined, resourceful and outspoken, her 'Rita’ is a hard character to put a handle on and at times keeps the audience at an emotional distance. But Nigel Cole knows where he is going with Made in Dagenham and, utilising some terrific period detail and capturing a great chemistry between the ensemble, assuredly delivers the crowd-pleasing final scenes. Rita and her posse’s immense contribution to British history is brought into full focus and Cole’s film does her spirit proud.
Watch 'Made in Dagenham'
Monday 2 November, 7:30pm on SBS World Movies
Director: Nigel Cole
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Miranda Richardson, Rupert Graves, Bob Hoskins, Rosamund Pike