Women's Work, Done And Dusted In 'Dagenham'

Bob Hoskins, Sally Hawkins, and Geraldine James

hide captionStriking Back: With the support of union representative Albert (Bob Hoskins, left), auto-factory workers Rita (Sally Hawkins) and Connie (Geraldine James) lead an equal-pay push that eventually becomes a national movement.

Susie Allnut/Sony Pictures Classics

Made In Dagenham

  • Director: Nigel Cole
  • Genre: Docudrama
  • Running Time: 113 minutes

Rated R for language and brief sexuality.

With: Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Rosamund Pike, Miranda Richardson

Toward the end of Made in Dagenham, a British feminist fable, a tall patrician lady loans a chic dress to a noticeably shorter working-class gal. The gal dons the dress for a very special occasion — and it fits perfectly. This Cinderella moment typifies the approach of director Nigel Cole, who extols the working-class cause without worrying his pretty little head about authenticity.

Based loosely on actual events, Made in Dagenham is a sentimental yet rousing account of a 1968 strike by women at Ford's plant in Dagenham, East London. Their one-day industrial action turns into something much bigger, leading ultimately to Britain's 1970 Equal Pay Act.

The story begins, as it continues, cutely. It's "the hottest day of the year," and the all-female crew that stitches seat covers for Ford is laboring in a state of partial undress. Avuncular union rep Albert (Bob Hoskins) averts his eyes from bra-clad torsos as he enters the shop with bad news: The women have been "regraded" as unskilled labor.

Albert and his utterly co-opted union superior schedule a meeting with management, and enlist quiet Rita (Sally Hawkins) to back up shop steward Connie (Geraldine James). Rankled by the condescension of both management and male union members, Rita becomes more and more outspoken — and more like the force-of-nature character Hawkins played in Happy Go Lucky. And she's bolstered by Albert, who is motivated by memories of the struggling single mom who raised him.

Connie retreats, in part because she has a shell-shocked World War II-veteran husband at home. But Rita won't be denied, even if it means having little time for her two young kids and the basically well-meaning husband who doesn't always remember to be supportive. Soon enough, Rita is being taken seriously by that patrician lady (An Education's Rosamund Pike), as well as by a liberal Cabinet minister (an exuberant Miranda Richardson). The cold-blooded American auto exec who arrives to handle the crisis doesn't stand a chance; neither does Prime Minister Harold Wilson, depicted here as rather clueless.

Sally Hawkins and Miranda Richardson i i

hide captionO'Grady's allies eventually include Cabinet minister Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson) — an iconic Labour Party politico who as transit minister helped usher in both seat belts and the Breathalyzer in Great Britain.

Susie Allnutt/Sony Pictures Classics
Sally Hawkins and Miranda Richardson

O'Grady's allies eventually include Cabinet minister Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson) — an iconic Labour Party politico who as transit minister helped usher in both seat belts and the Breathalyzer in Great Britain.

Susie Allnutt/Sony Pictures Classics

Movie Interviews

Little people banding together to accomplish something big is a familiar theme in post-Thatcher British cinema: See, for example, Brassed Off, The Full Monty and Cole's own Calendar Girls. But those movies are about small, quirky forms of insurrection. This one is about an uprising that improved the lives of all female workers in Britain. That's why the film, while unfailingly entertaining, feels a little small for its subject.

Part of Made in Dagenham's appeal is that it was clearly made for a British audience. Filming a story set in 1968 London, an American director probably would have gone all tie-dye. But Cole and scripter William Ivory understand that Britain was not particularly swinging at the time; aside from a few psychedelic pop hits on the soundtrack, and one Ford seat-cover stitcher with Carnaby Street dreams, the filmmakers depict a London shaped more by the Blitz than the Beatles.

Thus it's fitting that the movie features one old and one new song by Sandie Shaw, a Dagenham-born vocalist whose style bridged '50s pop and '60s rock. Shaw (who never achieved the U.S. success of her contemporary, Petula Clark) actually worked at Ford's Dagenham plant before entering showbiz. So when she closes the film with its theme song — lyrics by proletarian bard Billy Bragg — Made in Dagenham finally achieves just the balance of discord and harmony it's after.

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