When a film is based on a fascinating true story, and marshals grade-A talent on both sides of the camera, it automatically gets my attention. Made in Dagenham is inspired by a real-life labor struggle—apparently little remembered, even in England—that is both timely and relevant today. There is no reason on earth the results shouldn’t have been stronger.
The raw material has all the makings of great drama: in 1968, female workers at the vast Ford Motor Co. factory in a suburb of London went on strike after being reclassified as unskilled laborers, with a commensurate reduction in salary. Women weren’t taken seriously in the workforce, and their actions have wide, and unexpected, reverberations. Sally Hawkins (who won worldwide recognition for her starring role in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky) does a great job as a—
—a wife and mother of two who’s never gotten involved with union politics, until circumstance—and her own gumption—transform her into a single-minded leader. A parallel story features the wonderful Miranda Richardson as England’s Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, a feisty woman whose sympathies are entirely with the Ford workers, which causes friction for her government and its relationship with Ford.
Dagenham is designed to be a crowd pleaser, and it was directed by Nigel Cole, who knows how to coddle an audience (see Calendar Girls). I fear the fault lies in William Ivory’s screenplay, in which every piece fits perfectly and all too predictably into place, without a rough edge or a sign of nuance. Characters are painted in solid colors and their dialogue offers no subtext: seeing this story unfold is like connecting the dots in a children’s picture book.
Naturally, I enjoyed watching Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson, Rosamund Pike, Geraldine James and the rest of the well-chosen cast. I just wish the film didn’t push my buttons so blatantly. It turns out that Hawkins’ central character was invented, a composite based on a number of women; perhaps that’s part of the problem. She isn’t so much a character as a symbol. This film needs more flesh-and-blood.