Rupert Graves, Richard Schiff
- Rated R
- Buy the BD
All photos © Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by Bob Westal
mericans spent a good chunk of the 70s debating the now completely uncontroversial and self-evident idea that women and men should be paid the same amount for the same work. However, by the time allegedly bra-burning "women's libbers" got to facing off against "male chauvinist pigs" here in the States, the British had already mostly settled the matter.
As the funny and alarmingly cheerful "Made in Dagenham" shows, a good deal of the credit for that fact goes to a group of unionized female Ford factory workers based out of a slightly grimy London suburb. As a snazzy opening credits montage and Desmond Dekker's "The Israelites" sets the time period, we enter a hot factory floor where ladies of all ages partially strip down to beat the heat while carefully sewing automotive upholstery. It's difficult, detailed work, but the women are nevertheless categorized as "unskilled labor" and compensated as such.
While not fighting constant embarrassment caused by the site of partially unclothed female workers, shop steward Albert Passingham (Bob Hoskins), though presumably a member in good standing of the union old boys' club, is sincerely dedicated to changing the unfair situation. Seemingly almost at random, he taps spunky and sensible wife and mother Rita O'Grady (Sally Hawkins) to be the face of the Ford textile women. As events snowball, Passingham and O'Grady's efforts grows from being a simple issue of changing an unfair job classification to ending the orthodoxy of genitalia-determined pay rates.
The effort transforms Rita's life. There is a major strike, with all the hardships that entails, including tensions with union males in general and with Rita's decent but all too human husband (Daniel Mays) in particular. Add to that a chance encounter with a cloistered executive's wife (Rosamund Pike), a scary response from a pissed-off American Ford exec (Richard Schiff of "The West Wing") arguing that the very death of capitalism is imminent, and the interest of the first female British cabinet minister, Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), and it all adds up to a very stressful and fascinating time for the plucky but vulnerable Rita.
"Made in Dagenham" is not a complicated film and it's easy to see the recipe that makes it work. The first ingredients are the perky, mostly upbeat approach of William Ivory's humorous, workmanlike screenplay and Nigel Cole's steady direction that doesn't stint on period sheen. Cole's visuals may make some think of a proletarian "Mad Men" on laughing gas, but it's really just the combination of production design, costumes, music, and the work of director of photography John de Borman, who created a similar effect for roughly the same time period in "An Education."
More important than anything, however, is that Cole, best known for 2003's "Calendar Girls," should also get credit for getting the best out of his extraordinary cast, truly the key element in the success of "Made in Dagenham." Though more down-to-earth this time around, fans of Sally Hawkins from her hugely acclaimed turn in "Happy-Go-Lucky" will see some of the same charm, tamped down to more normal levels of cheer, as she plays an intelligent and well-adjusted woman subjected to some rather extraordinary pressures. In a potentially thankless role, Daniel Mays is equally believable as a perfectly nice guy who truly loves his wife and son but perhaps thinks he's due a bit more credit for being a good bloke than he actually deserves. Rosamund Pike, last seen in "An Education," is magnetic and somewhat sad in a relatively small role as a posh parent Rita bumps into while confronting her son's abusive math teacher (a biting cameo by Andrew Lincoln of "The Walking Dead.")
As the embodiment of British Ford management, Rupert Graves lends his authority to an equally thankless role as a corporate functionary. He is eventually all but obliterated by lone-American Richard Schiff ("The West Wing"), impressive as a super-sharp corporate hatchet man sent direct from Detroit. For many viewers, another highlight might be Andrea Risborough as an aspiring model. Some will enjoy the period fashions, including newfangled miniskirts and hot-pants; others will enjoy Risborough wearing them. Geraldine James and Roger Lloyd-Pack do well with the difficult task of carrying out the film's one extremely serious subplot, involving Rita's older friend and colleague and her World War II veteran husband, crippled by PTSD decades before the illness was given a proper medical name.
As the only major character that is not a fictional composite, Miranda Richardson plays several notes, many of them really quite hilarious, and many of them just downright commanding, in a relatively small but crucial role as U.K. political legend Barbara Castle. Richardson is enormous fun to watch, dressing down the sexist subordinates with real ire and a bit of queenly caprice that, rightly or wrongly, will remind "Blackadder" fans of her classic work as the outrageous Queenie (i.e. Queen Elizabeth I). Somehow, the fact that her anger is entirely justified and understandable makes these scenes all the funnier.
Having perhaps even more fun than Richardson, however, is Bob Hoskins as the kindly, shrewd, and surprisingly idealistic shop steward, Passingham. Hoskins takes a role that could just be a dull "sweet old bird" role and makes him come alive with genuine emotion and delight as his plans pay off probably far more than he ever imagined. A scene explaining the source of his unusual feminist fervor, as he discusses the struggles of his single mother, is both logical and extremely touching and sweet. The role is also a nice reminder that, in other countries, characters who are able to quote Karl Marx can be good guys.
As Peter Bradshaw pointed out in his review in The Guardian, "Made in Dagenham" represents a real departure for pop English comedies dealing with the working class, in that it deals with a successful strike. Moreover, this is not another tale of English, Scottish or Irish proles losing their jobs and escaping a drab existence by starting a band or getting completely naked on stage. This is a story where being able to work for a decent living is actually the reward, the "happy ending," and where ordinary labor is seen as a noble calling, not a punishment. On the other hand, "Dagenham" does follow the depressing pattern of UK films that young people should actually see saddled with a ridiculous R-rating for a few odd F-words. All in all, "Made in Dagenham" is relatively thin material at times, but it's sincere in its thinness and leaves you grinning, despite a bit of tragedy. That's fairly special.
Single-Disc Blu-ray Review:
Sony Pictures Classics has put together a pretty standard collection of bonus material for the Blu-ray release of Nigel Cole’s period piece, including a director commentary, cast and crew interviews about making the film, deleted scenes, and some outtakes. There's nothing here really begging to be watched, but you can't fault them for trying.