Saturday 29 February 2020

Movie Review: Made In Dagenham (2010)

A labour conflict drama, Made In Dagenham celebrates a small group of women who fought for gender pay equity. The film is well-intentioned but altogether too obvious.

It's 1968 in unfashionable Dagenham, England, where the Ford motor company employs tens of thousands of workers at a car manufacturing plant. Less than 200 of them are women, and they mostly operate sewing machines to stitch together seat fabrics. Encouraged by supervisor Albert (Bob Hoskins), the women organize labour action to demand better pay and recognition as skilled workers.

Feisty machinist Rita O'Grady (Sally Hawkins) supplants the more frazzled Connie (Geraldine James) as leader and spokesperson, and shocks Ford's management by demanding equal pay for equal work regardless of gender. The women go on a full strike, eventually shutting down the factory. As the community starts to struggle financially, Rita learns not everyone appreciates her hardline stance. Ford's Detroit leadership wades into the conflict, as does Britain's Employment Secretary Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson).

Based on a true story but featuring mostly made-up characters, Made In Dagenham is as British as its title, drawing inspiration from suburban working class housing estates and the spirit of unlikely activists standing up for an idealistic principle against a profit-driven heartless corporation. The story carries inherent power, but writer William Ivory and director Nigel Cole cannot do much with it except mechanically tick the expected boxes.

As it goes through the motions, the film is comfortably and annoyingly familiar. Rita is the local hero emerging as an inspirational leader; her family life suffers as she is preoccupied with the cause; the community turns against her when the men are forced out of work; and she has to persist and fight for what is right, staring down not just the company but also the broader male-dominated union movement, unimpressed with women making their voices heard.

When it's not reverberating with strong echoes of Norma Rae, Made In Dagenham not infrequently threatens to descend to television movie-of-the-week fare, complete with a trite call to ignite the British spirit of World War Two. Other than the empathetic Albert, the men are uniformly portrayed as dolts, and all the Ford management types may as well be labeled "evil corporate type" on their foreheads.

Cole introduces the character of Lisa Hopkins (Rosamund Pike) as the wife of a Ford executive. She crosses paths with Rita at the school attended by both their kids, and what promises to be an interesting across-the-divide relationship between the women becomes a missed opportunity, settled in the most bland way possible.

Ivory's script leaves out notions of depth and background, most of the characters quick-fried into cliches. Sally Hawkins single-handedly drags the film towards respectability as she fights gamely against the material, but she barely bridges the credibility gap in Rita's evolution from sewing machinist to articulate, passionate and fearless leader.

Some highlight moments are provided by Miranda Richardson as a Labour Party cabinet minister caught between crass political realities, genuine economic imperatives and sympathy to the cause of her fellow women. Made In Dagenham starts on the shop floor but ends at the policy table, where a better story may have resided all along.

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