Made in Dagenham (United Kingdom, 2010)December 17, 2010
Made in Dagenham is a fact-based "social conscience film," meaning that it explores an historical struggle against a societal ill. In this case, it's gender inequality - unequal pay for equal work. By chronicling one of the key events that led to the U.K.'s landmark 1970 Equal Pay Act, director Nigel Cole is able to reflect on how different the work environment was as recently as a generation ago. In 2010, it's hard to imagine anyone taking a stance against equal pay for men and women. Despite that, however, the United States has not yet achieved parity. So, although Made in Dagenham may seem like a history lesson with little contemporary relevance, that's not precisely true. The playing field has not been as leveled as we might like to believe.
It's 1968 at the Ford Dagenham assembly plant. The small cadre of female workers (less than 200), led by the irrepressible Rita O'Grady (Sally Hawkins) has decided to strike after the company refuses a demand for women to be paid at the same level as their male counterparts (the rate is about 15% less). At first, the company regards this as a nuisance and is certain it will end quickly. But Rita refuses to knuckle under and she has the full support of her fellows, if not her husband (Daniel Mays), who finds himself without work when Ford temporarily shuts down the factory. As the situation becomes serious, Ford sends an executive, Robert Tooley (Richard Schiff), to Dagenham to break the union. The government becomes involved via the intervention of Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity. The result, as history shows, is a stunning win for the women that leads to the creation of the aforementioned Equal Pay Act.
One problem with Made in Dagenham relates to its tone, which borders on sanctimonious in its handling of the strike. Cole treats the audience like school-age children in need of a morality lesson. There's little drama in the conflict. We recognize that the evils of inequality will be vanquished by the sword of the determined woman who will not back down. Most of the characters are familiar types and only a few evidence meaningful growth. The instance of triumph provides a surge of satisfaction, as one would expect from a moment when a great social injustice is repudiated, but it's impossible to believe anyone in the audience would have expected or accepted anything different. In many ways, Made in Dagenham is a cousin to Niki Caro's North Country, although that movie overcame the reverential tone by making the story more about the lead character than about a historical milestone. North Country had an intensity and immediacy that Made in Dagenham's less melodramatic and more didactic style permits.
That's not to say Rita is an uninteresting character. This is a showcase for Sally Hawkins, whose work here ranks among the five best lead actress performances of the year. She breathes life into a character who, on paper, might not be fully realized. The quaver in her voice when she speaks emphasizes Rita's nervousness. Passion for what she's doing provides the spark of ignition, and Hawkins conveys it mostly through non-verbal cues. Similarly, when her demeanor is low, the sparkle vanishes from her eyes. Her work here is perhaps not as eye opening as what she accomplished in Happy Go Lucky, but it's more measured.
Hawkins is surrounded by a sterling cast, although many of the supporting actors are hamstrung by underwitten roles. Bob Hoskins is the organizer who helps the women fight for their rights. Geraldine James is the overworked wife of a World War II veteran with mental problems. Miranda Richardson is the women's secret ally in the government (other than Hawkins, she's the lone standout). Rupert Graves is an executive at the plant and Rosamund Pike is his trophy wife. And Matt Aubrey is Rita's husband, who grows increasingly more resentful as her involvement in the strike diminishes the attention she pays to her family.
On a couple of occasions, Made in Dagenham touches upon issues that, if expanded, might have provided a more dramatically compelling tapestry. There is an assertion that the concept of equal pay for women is an attack on the male masculinity - his ability to be the "breadwinner" and to "provide for his family." In fact, that belief is a primary reason why 100% parity has not yet been achieved even in the United States. This is later reinforced when a man who has lost his wages because of the temporary closure of the factory blames Rita for his being unable to pay his bills. Strangely, however, William Ivory's script does not pursue these instances - they are presented as anecdotes rather than the underpinnings of a more complete story.
Made in Dagenham's '60s setting is developed in the way that '60s settings often are - with plenty of nostalgia. The fashions are hairdos are what one would expect based on news footage and photographs and the soundtrack is littered with era-appropriate songs. However, it's the attitudes of the characters more than anything else that establishes the time period in which events transpire.
I wish I could be more favorable in my appraisal of the movie but, despite a tremendous performance by Hawkins, I was never engaged by the struggle of these women. Their fight may have been historical in its impact, but there's little sense that the personal stakes are high. If Rita had lost her bid to achieve equality, life would have pretty much gone on as always for her. The struggle for an ideal devoid of immediate and powerful personal consequences rarely makes for an engaging drama. Made in Dagenham is a useful lesson in history and a reminder that we yet have a distance to travel to attain the goal, but the narrative is dry, safe, and predictable and, as a result, not fully satisfying.
Made in Dagenham (United Kingdom, 2010)
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Geraldine James, Jaime Winstone, Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson, Rupert Graves, Rosamund Pike, Daniel Mays, Richard Schiff
Screenplay: William Ivory
Cinematography: John de Borman
Music: David Arnold
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
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