Unlike its bold heroines, “Made in Dagenham” doesn’t break any new ground. But just because it’s treading the familiar waters of “Norma Rae,” “The Full Monty,” and director Nigel Cole‘s own “Calendar Girls” and “Saving Grace,” doesn’t mean that it’s not an enjoyable diversion, particularly if you’re looking for something to watch with the middle-aged woman in your life. “Made in Dageham” is inspiring in that (wo)man-against-the-world sort of way, and its talent and historical basis are compelling enough that you don’t have to feel guilty. Sally Hawkins (so great in “Happy-Go-Lucky” and, well, everything) is sympathetic but strong as Rita O’Grady, an amalgam of several women who led the strike at the Ford factory in Dagenham, England in the 1960s.
Though Dagenham is just miles outside mod London, “Made in Dagenham” doesn’t glamorize the life and work of the women at the plant. Just 187 women are employed at the factory as seat seamstresses, and they’re surrounded by a sea of 55,000 male employees. Their room at the factory is packed with sewing machines and hot air, causing the women to work stripped to the waist and shout a gleeful warning when men appear. But through their giggles, the women work hard, making it a particularly damaging insult when they’re downgraded to “unskilled,” which also affects their take-home pay. Though they’re all at different stages of their lives–working mom Rita, aging wife Connie (Geraldine James), and sexy young single Brenda (Andrea Riseborough)–they depend on their wages, and they’re now earning even less than their male counterparts.
Their union rep Albert (Bob Hoskins) encourages them to stand up for their rights. When Connie’s efforts for equality at the plant must take a backseat to her husband’s (Roger Lloyd Pack) health needs, Rita steps up to the pleasant surprise of her husband Eddie (Danny Mays). When they take their problem to Ford, their case is largely ignored by the head of PR (Rupert Graves), causing Rita to step up their efforts. A strike looms, and suddenly formerly supportive husbands (who are also employed by Ford) have started to waver. However, Rita finds luck when she connects with both a Cambridge-grad-turned-housewife (Rosamund Pike) and top government official Barbara Castle (a wonderfully restrained Miranda Richardson), who may help her cause.
Hoskins is warm and wonderful as Albert, who always seems a second away from smiling and winking at the women he represents. His affection is infectious, and it’s easy to like the cast and characters, with the grand exception of the often one-dimensional villains who aren’t given the opportunity to show any sort of humanity (though it is fun to see a scheming Richard Schiff as an evil American Ford bigwig). As a whole, the strikers and their allies are beguiling but still believable, particularly Riseborough and James.
“Made in Dagenham” is smart and funny and just a bit bawdy, but it’s obviously not without drama. As though the labor difficulties weren’t enough, personal problems plague the women, but neither plight is overwhelming for the more softhearted members of the audience. It’s also a sometimes-fascinating look at second-wave feminism in the U.K. that centers on women who didn’t see themselves as part of a bigger movement, just as a small group crusading for equality. The ’60s setting allows for fun fashion (colorful shifts and Mary Quant short shorts) and a solid soundtrack that is interesting, largely because it doesn’t feature songs that are overused for the period (save for Sam the Sham and The Pharoahs‘ “Wooly Bully”). Instead, we get tracks from Spanky and Our Gang, Small Faces, Dekker, and more.
Other than the slightly cheesy score by David Arnold, the film’s only major flaw is that it’s forgettable. It’s an inspiring, little-told story, but it’s relayed in such standard fashion that there’s little to set it apart from its uplifting brethren other than Hawkins’s fantastic performance. Without knowing the history, it’s easy to telegraph what will happen since we’ve seen this story so many times before. [B]