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by Eric Kohn
November 17, 2010 3:29 AM
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REVIEW | Root for the Cause, Not the Product: "Made in Dagenham"

A scene from Nigel Cole's "Made in Dagenham." [Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics]

The best scenes of "Made in Dagenham" run alongside the end credits. After two hours of a fictionalized take on the 1968 Ford machinists strike, when British women lashed out at the company's unequal payment policies, the real survivors of the protest get a chance to speak up. Recalling their decision to rebel, which resulted in the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1970, a veteran of the experience remarks, "We didn't think we were that strong." In director Nigel Cole's version of the events, however, the strength that paves the way to victory is never less than inevitable.

Sally Hawkins plays Rita O'Grady, the gentle young mother of two and the eventual leader of the 187 women employed by the Ford Motor Company, where they stitch together bits of car seat upholstery, wiping away sweat as they toil in their underwear. The poor compensation makes their terrible working conditions seem even worse, but Rita only takes a stand once the affable union rep Albert (Bob Hoskins), out of allegiance to the memory of his hardworking mother, nudges her into the spotlight. From there, specific complaints about the derogatory labeling of their work as "unskilled labor" develop into a larger movement for equal pay.

Hawkins, whose delicate features perfectly matched her giddy persona in Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky," does a fine job as the by-the-numbers working class heroine unwilling to back down. But William Ivory's screenplay, weighed down by dry British wit and uninspired plotting, fails to intensify the emotional journey on its own terms. Every conflict fits neatly with its resolution: Rita faces cold stares from a roomful of stern Ford reps, then fires back with a monologue that reasserts her control. A nasty spat with her husband (Danny Mays) gets resolved a few scenes later in a tender embrace. When one of her girls briefly sells out, Rita quickly gains her back. Considering that it's a story about the struggle for gender equality in a society opposed to it, "Made in Dagenham" never raises the stakes as high as they can go without quickly bringing them back down to earth.

The most interesting character receives the least amount of screen time. As ornery Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity Barbara Castle, Miranda Richardson grits her teeth and scowls her way through the male-dominated British government. "I'm generally treated as if I were the maid queen," she moans, then finds the ultimate chance to fight back by supporting Rita's cause.

The specter of Ford's dominance over the local industry, represented by its irascible head of industrial relations (Rupert Graves), gives the movie a physical villain for Castle to resist, but Rita's sole enemy is the general perception that her efforts have no practical value. The message only has an impact when she universalizes it. "We're not politicians," she says. "We're working women." It's a simple assertion to match the aims of a movie with intentions that run surface deep.

Timing validates the existence of "Made in Dagenham" more than the specifics of the plot. With the November 17th vote for the Paycheck Fairness Act just around the corner, the movie's release functions as a form of de facto activism -- and a reminder that seemingly outdated problems take their time going away. Nevertheless, no amount of good will can overcome the sappiness of Rita's final statement at a podium that brings everyone to tears -- literally, as most of the cast magically appears in the room in time to get the gist of it.

For all its historical weight, Rita's story routinely falls prey to predictability. Each twist happens on autopilot: The marital disputes, the galvanizing speeches that bring down the house, the final explanatory notes that put a ribbon on the happy ending. Root for the cause, not the product, because "Made in Dagenham" creates the rare situation where a major revolution feels like a minor routine.

criticWIRE Grade: B-

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  • James Sargent | November 22, 2010 2:16 AMReply

    An astute observation: . "Timing validates the existence of “Made in Dagenham” more than the specifics of the plot. With the November 17th vote for the Paycheck Fairness Act just around the corner, the movie’s release functions as a form of de facto activism—and a reminder that seemingly outdated problems take their time going away"

    Current events give validity to the topic of the movie.but not the presentation of the depicted enent

  • Herb | November 20, 2010 11:07 AMReply

    The reviewer is just on the mark . The historical event was raw material for a great film.
    "Rita’s story routinely falls prey to predictability. Each twist happens on autopilot".

  • Chris | November 20, 2010 12:36 AMReply

    Pardon, but what is a "maid queen"?

    I believe it is "may queen" - ie a woman selected to ride at the front of the parade as a symbol. The poster who said the writer "doesn’t understand the British" hit the nail on the head. That's a pretty glaring mistake.

  • richard | November 19, 2010 5:12 AMReply

    "The best scenes of “Made in Dagenham” run alongside the end credits" Amen

  • Shelagh Hemelryk | November 18, 2010 11:35 AMReply

    This crit is written by someone who doesn't understand the British and has little understanding of 'the time'. Firstly the women, having to work in underwear did not consider the conditions to be 'terrible' , partly because of the companionship, humour and acceptance of their situation. Of course change was inevitable as was the inevitable curbing of the power of the unions, which became corrupt. However the film shows how a woman, inspired by the forsight of another individual, could assert a personality and strength which had such an effect on future 'rights' for women as well as the success of her own cause. Everything that happened might have appeared 'inevitable' because most probably was, within the context of the 'true' story.That Barbara Castle was able to 'use' the Women's fight to back her own cause was part of her strength, that she trusted and was trusted by working people. It was her downright common sense and tough humour that made her able to bring forward many important changes at first derrided by the male majority. But the films 'plotting' was perfect, and what proved to be a 'major revolution' was more like a minor routine in the gradual process of reform and overcoming predjudice. To present this like sme great over sentimental, dramatic American drama would have been totally wrong and historically incorrect.

  • blanche | November 18, 2010 10:47 AMReply

    This movie makes a caricature of the struggle of the working women for equality and dignity. the case the movie fictionalizes required context of the terrible conditions that working women had to suffer to earn a living. The review provides a connection between the reality of the historical event and the less than transparent story presented by the film

  • Glen | November 18, 2010 1:44 AMReply

    Eric has hit the mark on this review. The story plot which, is based on well known events the author of this comment lived, is not based on reality. In particular the movie presents Barbara Castle as a notch below mother Theresa. The reality is that Mrs Castle was make a star by the the incredible lack of understanding of worker situation by the Ford Managers. The movie fails to show this issue in favor of long superficial dialects.