Made in Dagenham(Sony Pictures Classics, R)

Of course there is a principle involved, even if Ford is not willing to state it directly; they intend to pay the women less because they think they can get away with it.

It’s 1968 and the Ford factory in the London suburb of Dagenham is the largest factory in Europe, employing 55,000 men and 187 women. The women are treated as second-class citizens in every way, working as sewing machinists in sheds that leak when it rains and get so hot in the summer that they often work stripped down to their underwear. The male head of their union treats them as if they are deaf, dumb and incapable of understanding their own lives, and everyone refers to them as girls. To top it all off when they come home from work they are expected to take care of all the domestic chores while their husbands snooze on the couch. Dagenham in 1968 is still very much a man’s world, in other words, but the women accept these indignities (which are absolutely within the normative gender relations of the time) until Ford downgrades their positions from semi-skilled to unskilled, with a corresponding pay cut.
Ford’s ill-advised decision proves to be the bridge too far that sets off an industrial action whose ultimate resolution is the passage in 1970 of the Equal Pay Act, which prohibits discrimination in the United Kingdom in wages and all other conditions of employment. Looking back, you have to wonder what the Ford management was thinking by trying to save a few pence per hour on a tiny fraction of their work force. Of course there is a principle involved, even if Ford is not willing to state it directly; they intend to pay the women less because they think they can get away with it.
Made in Dagenham is based on the 1968 Dagenham strike and successfully packages its history lesson within a conventional feature film, which should help it draw a large audience. It’s not a perfect film by any means but an exceptionally strong cast and high production values overcome the script’s occasional lapses into melodrama, too-neat coincidences and because-the-story-needs-it character transformations. This is a film that should be widely seen not only for its quality as a piece of cinematic fiction but also because it tells the story of an important historical episode (and one that I’m pretty sure is not familiar to most Americans).
Sally Hawkins, playing the young wife/mother/factory worker Rita O’Grady, is the heart and soul of Made in Dagenham. Her personal growth from one among many women in her situation to an articulate and determined leader parallels the progress of the strike and also the broader story of women’s liberation. As the strike becomes national news the Ford management speculates on her motivations: is she a Socialist, a Communist or what? What they fail to see, perhaps because seeing would cost them too much money, is that her actions are based on the simple principle that people should be paid according to the work they do and not according to their chromosomal makeup (Rita puts it a bit more colorfully). You don’t need a party affiliation or a university education to understand something so obviously true.
The story of the strike is paralleled by a secondary plotline that brings Rita into contact with the Cambridge-educated housewife Lisa Hopkins (Rosamund Pike). Their sons attend the same school and have been victimized by a geometry instructor who has the habit of caning the boys for minor infractions (i.e., forgetting to bring a protractor to class). When confronted by Rita he not only fails to hear what she has to say but launches into a class-based diatribe about how boys from the estates (public housing) often find it difficult to fit in with the superior educational standards of the school. Pike has far too little time before the camera but makes it all count (a scene where she explains to a Ford official why they’re having labor troubles, in between serving the main course and the cheese, is priceless) and her solidarity with Rita makes an important point about how gender oppression knows no class.
Miranda Richardson also makes a strong impression in her brief screen time as Barbara Castle, Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, who takes seriously the title of her party (Labour) while Prime Minister Harold Wilson (John Sessions) is more concerned with placating the Ford management. Richardson is as convincing trading girl-talk about clothes (Rita comes to a meeting wearing a borrowed Biba dress) as she is testing the striker’s determination or ordering her all-male staff to do their jobs properly.
The script by William Ivory is full of characters-as-symbols that demand that the audience work a little harder than usual to suspend their disbelief. Geraldine James plays Connie, the shop steward, and together with her husband George (Roger Lloyd Pack) represent the older generation that lived through the Depression and World War II while Sandra (Jamie Winstone) represents the swinging younger generation (she turns up for the picket line wearing Mary Quant hot pants). Bob Hoskins is the enlightened male of the older generation; as the union rep he encourages Rita to develop her natural talent for leadership while confiding that he backs the equal pay cause because he and his brothers were raised by a single mother whose meager wages made their lives that much more difficult.
Despite the somewhat schematic nature of Made in Dagenham’s script the committed performances by the cast bring their characters alive. Director Nigel Cole includes archival footage that reminds us that this is not just a made-up story, but a representation of real historical events which helped shape the world we live in today. A soundtrack by David Arnold (incorporating many period hits), production design by Andrew McAlpine, costumes by Louise Stjernsward and hair and make-up by Lizzie Yianni Georgiou place the story firmly in the late 1960s and the clothing and hairstyles will particularly delight fans of Mad Men. Be sure to stay for the credits sequence, which features clips of interviews with the original strikers. | Sarah Boslaugh

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