Female autoworkers sew seats of change in 1960’s England
by Jared Peterson
History’s pivotal moments are often small—the flying of a flag, the raising (or lowering) of a weapon, the stroke of a pen. Before and after come tougher times, when real people take very real risks, putting their lives and livelihoods on the line in part because they can see those moments in the distance when others can’t. Made in Dagenham tells the story of one such struggle, a trying, uphill slog toward equal pay.
In 1968, workingwomen everywhere were paid a tiny fraction of the wage afforded men in similar positions. At the Ford Motor Company plant in Dagenham, a working-class suburb of London, underpaid women work the upholstery shop, assembling seat covers for the fleets of new cars rolling off the line. They toil in sweatshop conditions, their labor classified as “unskilled” though it requires them to artfully and ingeniously piece together irregular materials into a perfectly proportioned whole.
They stay upbeat, relying on each other for support. Few are more supportive than Rita O’Grady (Golden Globe winner Sally Hawkins). When another round of grievances are ignored, the crew choose Rita to speak for them. She meets with predictable condescension and hostility, but soldiers on, leading the women in a series of unprecedented work actions, including a protracted strike that grinds Ford to a halt. The consequences are wide-ranging, following the women home and threatening the stability of families and community. Finally, Rita is able to move the fight to London, where she challenges the new Labour government to live up to its name and support what’s right.
As good as it makes one feel, Made in Dagenham has significant defects. The movie is much like one of those new Fords: an assembly-line product with a small amount of hand-stitched material. The characters, though based on real people, seem prefabricated to fit handy stereotypes: Brenda (Andrea Riseborough), the staff tart, whose dalliance with the local grocer pays dividends when the strikers must put food on their tables; Sandra (Jamie Winstone), the fashion plate, who gets Twiggier as time goes on and whose modeling aspirations endanger the movement’s solidarity; Lisa (Rosamund Pike), the stunning, blonde executive’s wife (she’s like “Mad Men’s” Betty Draper, except you don’t want to toss her down a well), whose intelligence and education earn her the right to freshen men’s drinks after dinner. They and others do and say only enough to keep the gears of the plot turning. [I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize for the extended car metaphor. Bad writer… bad.]
The script, by TV writer William Ivory, has the annoying but all too common habit of telling what it ought to show, the dialogue often stating outright what the audience might otherwise infer. Director Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls), too, leads us straight where we need to go, though he takes care with the scenery, recreating authentic views of Dagenham’s working-class environs and ‘60s era British design and fashion. The fine craftsmanship (if you’ll forgive the gendered term) comes from the actors. Those mentioned above all do fine work with meager material. And no use fighting it—you are in love with Sally Hawkins. She’s custom-made for Rita, imbuing her with a perfect combination of vulnerability and vitality. Her face betrays ripples of conflicting emotion as she stands up to company executives, tells off smug union negotiators, and makes a case to the steely but sympathetic Secretary of State (Miranda Richardson). Bob Hoskins does yeoman’s work as Albert, the union rep who can barely contain his pride in the women. And as Ford’s American hatchet man, Richard Schiff brings the same quiet intensity he used as Toby Ziegler on “The West Wing” to convey corporate efficiency with few words and fewer expressions.
Though I wish there was more to it, Made in Dagenham is a feel-good movie just in time for the holidays. And hey, maybe some labor equality will rub off when it’s time to do the holiday dishes.
Made in Dagenham is rated R. Most of the characters blow off steam by getting drunk. Not “Jersey Shore” drunk—nice drunk, but still. When Brenda gets busy with some bloke, we see sexual swaying, but only from the neck or so up. Violence is sometimes implied. A schoolteacher unrepentantly admits to using corporal punishment with his students, and [CAUTION: SPOILER TO FOLLOW] when a character hangs himself, one can make out part of the body swinging in and out of frame. [AAAAND WE’RE BACK.] There’s the frequent swearing—which, I still maintain, just sounds nicer when the British do it. Weighed against the social uplift and the genuine inspiration of the story, you may decide the adult material is worth braving with your older teens.