Although Made in Dagenham is far from perfect and has a particular fondness for those impromptu speeches which turn out to be stirringly spot-on, it is so warm-hearted and affectionate it wouldn’t be right to take against it.
Although Made in Dagenham is far from perfect and has a particular fondness for those impromptu speeches which turn out to be stirringly spot-on, it is so warm-hearted and affectionate it wouldn’t be right to take against it. It would be like kicking a puppy or, perhaps, randomly plonking a cat in a wheelie bin, of which, I believe, there has even been a recorded incidence. It is also just such a joy to see a film in which women drive the narrative and aren’t incidental, weak-willed, shopping-obsessed, easily dispatched with sharp objects, past it at 35, or rom-com, therapy-speak morons. Eat, Pray, Love? No, Thank, You. I, Think, Not.
This is based on the true story of the 1968 Ford Dagenham strike; the strike by 187 female sewing machinists which eventually led to the 1970 Equal Pay Act. It stars Sally Hawkins, Geraldine James, Andrea Riseborough, Miranda Richardson and Rosamund Pike, which is all, well, just lovely. Pike’s role as the posh, Cambridge-graduate wife of one of the Ford bosses seems entirely bogus and irrelevant, but that’s kind of OK, because you get to watch Pike, which is always more than OK.
It’s directed by Nigel ‘Calendar Girls’ Cole, who is now always referred to as Nigel ‘Calendar Girls’ Cole. I wonder if his mother even calls him that: ‘Nigel “Calendar Girls” Cole, come out of that editing suite before your tea gets cold!’
Anyway, because it’s directed by Nigel ‘Calendar Girls’ Cole, I think you already know what sort of film you’ll be getting, and it is just that. It’s a personal journey film and mostly sunny in tone, rather than politicised. The harsh realities of the time are barely touched upon; not even to the extent they were in The Full Monty. The women work in appallingly grim conditions; in a dilapidated shed that leaks when it rains and is so hot in the summer that they strip to their undies, but this is treated only as a jolly jape, and so that Albert (Bob Hoskins), the union rep, can walk about with his hands over his eyes going:, ‘Oh, gawd,’ as if Barbara Windsor’s bra had just pinged off. Plus, the women all look like total dolly birds, fresh from the boutiques on the Kings Road via Vidal Sassoon and 21st-century dentistry. Now, no offence to the real Dagenham strikers of 1968, whose images I’ve Googled, but they did not look like dolly birds, fresh from the boutiques on the Kings Road via Vidal Sassoon and 21st-century dentistry, but that is the movies for you, and you take it or leave it. I’d take it.
This is an honest film with a good heart starring the most blissfully watchable actresses, and you don’t get many of those to the pound.
Our main focus is Rita O’Grady (Hawkins; always a pleasure), a fictional composite of various women. Rita lives on the local estate with her husband (Daniel Mays) and their two young children, who watch Sooty on the rented black-and-white TV. The nostalgic product placement is shameless: Sooty; rented tellies; Biba, Berni Inns; C&A; hot pants. Shameless, but rather marvellous…hot pants! Mine were purple! However, trouble brews when the women machinists are downgraded from semi-skilled workers to unskilled so that Ford can pay them even less than they already do. Rita is designated as the spokesperson, encouraged by Albert, whose sentimental back story you are advised to ignore. Rita is quiet and reluctant, initially, but she is a feisty little thing who grows in confidence and outrage and, next thing you know, she is taking down male Union officials, addressing the TUC, marching on Parliament and meeting the Secretary of State for Employment, Barbara Castle, played by Miranda Richardson with much lip-smacking relish, and mostly for laughs.
The economic fall-out from the strike — it led to the factory closing down, thereby putting 55,000 men out of jobs — and the resultant tensions are largely played out in Rita’s marriage, perhaps not very convincingly. The film, anyway, is more interested in travelling the highways and byways of its characters’ personal lives: Connie (James) and her shell-shocked husband; Sandra (Jamie Winstone) with her lust for modelling; and Brenda (Riseborough) who has a lot of sex. (Actually, Brenda is a bit of a non-part.) Dagenham is politically light, as I’ve said, but perhaps if it weren’t it would be a turn-off. You can’t really take against it. Or, to put it another way: You’ll, Like, It.