The British film industry really does like charming, nostalgic period pieces, doesn’t it? In the last year we’ve had The Boat That Rocked, Cemetery Junction and An Education, all which, to a certain extent, package up comedy and drama with a knowing representation of the 1960s and 1970s, an era where, if you believe the hype, everything changed. Made In Dagenham, the latest from Calendar Girls director Nigel Cole, is no different.
Here’s the hook. It’s 1968, and the female machinists at the Dagenham Ford motor car plant aren’t happy. A recent pay restructure has classed them as unskilled, guaranteeing them wages well below the rates of their male colleagues. This is clearly unsuitable. So they strike.
Initially uncertain, the women are led by young worker Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins), whose resilience in the face of resistance from the employers, fellow workers, and even husbands, help them to eventually make their mark on British culture, and pave the way for the Equal Pay Act two years later.
There’s a hint of a fairy tale in how Made In Dagenham condenses history, compositing characters and situations, and wrapping it up in a pleasant package. It uses iconography and nostalgia to paint with broad strokes, while squirreling away any real ambiguity, conflict or complications behind picturesque cinematography and charming performances.
An amalgam of a number of (as seen in credits sequence archive footage, older) women workers, Sally Hawkins’ Rita is portrayed at every turn as an unwilling, yet inspiring hero. She’s initially chosen as the fourth string in a union meeting with the company’s top brass, seemingly at random, or for no distinct reason. A camera pan and a flourish in the score is all we need. And her moment in the sun, where she confronts the stuffy men (causing their monocles to drop, if they were wearing them, which they might as well have been), is passed off as a flash of innocent big-mouthery.
It’s lucky that she makes such an inspiring public speaker, then. Hawkins is a fine actress, charismatic and subtle, but the film pushes her far too much towards broadness, as every line uttered before the workers is done so while shaking with indignation, eyes thick with defiance.
This tendency towards extremes comes from a clunky script, which has no problem shouting out plot points and underlying themes. Each character of the modest ensemble receives their moment to shine, often with a pivotal, theme-spewing speech tidily tied to narrative development. It’s a gross mishandling of a great cast, featuring Bob Hoskins (Churchill-worshipping foreman), Daniel Mays (Rita’s doting, but overwhelmed husband), Rosamund Pike (an oppressed upperclass, Oxbridge-educated housewife) and Jaime Winstone (a kittenish, hot pants-wearing machinist with modelling ambitions).
Ultimately, the film doesn’t want to offend anyone, so it hides behind its universal central topic. After all, is there anyone that disagrees with the sentiment of the Equal Pay Act? To this end, each corner is equally lampooned and valorised. Politicians are in the back pockets of the American industrial tycoons, but ballsy Secretary of State Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson) bats aside such concerns. The unions are patronising and corrupt, but tell a room full of Welsh miners a rousing tale of downtrodden minorities, and they’ll soon come around. Even Ford, throughout painted as the evil corporation, is painted by an end credits wrap-up as becoming a paragon of workers’ rights.
By setting the story in a nostalgic past, and keeping the tone uncomplicated and sunny, Made In Dagenham is sapped of any revolutionary thinking, or dramatic bite. It looks beautiful, and the opening/closing shots of the women riding to work en masse on bicycle are picture perfect, but it’s remarkably shallow.
Considering the themes that are still relevant, if less overt, today – the expectations and prejudices heaped on women, the glass ceilings of employment, and that little problem of equal pay – the fact that Made In Dagenham sticks too closely to the dumb but entertaining, light drama-comedy format short-changes any inspirational ideals. It is obviously bagging for populism, looking for mainstream success in the vein of Billy Elliot or The Full Monty, but its idle entertainment won’t inspire much more than a hearty chuckle.