REVIEW: Made in Dagenham [2010]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 113 minutes | Release Date: October 1st, 2010 (UK)
Studio: Paramount Pictures International / Sony Pictures Classics
Director(s): Nigel Cole
Writer(s): William Ivory

“Above all—if I nod, you nod”

It is somewhat humorous how there has been such uproar of debate concerning the feminism at work with Zack Snyder’s newest Sucker Punch. Here is a fantastical action romp of emblazoned young women fighting for their freedom through imagination and we’re made to cut through a flimsy script to find political rhetoric when entertainment is much easier to see. If only half of the people stirring up conversation on the subject would move instead towards a gem from last year called Made in Dagenham, we’d possibly be more enlightened on real women heroes. Depicting the famous 1968 strike at Ford Motors in Great Britain, Nigel Cole’s film shows the true power of feminist courage and the strength to fight for what should be a God-given right, not a man-made privilege that could be upheld. It isn’t a matter of the machinists who sew every seat cover being told their craft is unskilled; it’s about the union and corporation using that delineation to pay them less than men. Well, if one strike can single-handedly shut down a business employing 40,000 citizens, those women surely are as important, if not more, as their male counterparts.

Credit screenwriter William Ivory for weaving his way through the tale and understanding its real purpose. When the film begins, it is Albert Passingham (Bob Hoskins) who champions these women, standing up for them and pushing them towards the eventual nationwide epidemic of headstrong protest. Here is a man who could easily have been put on a pedestal as the driving force of a cause, proof that even a feminine victory couldn’t have occurred without the leadership of a man. But that isn’t the message, that isn’t why this story needs to be told. No, while he may have stood up for his girls against the rest of his union who’d rather sweep them under the rug and smile while doing so, and may have hand-picked the voice of the resistance, it was the mettle and fortitude of the machinists who made it all possible. It’s Connie (Geraldine James) who cultivates an air of respect for her guild; it’s Brenda and Sandra (Andrea Riseborough and Jaime Winstone) who somehow manage to balance sex appeal with industrious pride in work; and it’s Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) whose impassioned core latches onto the strike and decides to unflinchingly take it to victory.

Made in Dagenham is very much O’Grady’s mythic David vs. Goliath struggle against a superpower of industry and, in the bigger picture, a modern world’s long overdue acceptance of humanity being based on equality. She is just a housewife working at the same plant as her bread-winning husband (Daniel Mays’s Eddie), sewing in a poorly ventilated room causing most to strip to their underwear only to pick up the kids afterwards, cook dinner, and do the laundry. Here is the crazy irony: the women are practically pulling three jobs—work, homemaker, and babysitter for kids and husband—while the men work and drink before sauntering back to domestic life and get paid nearly twice as much for their troubles. So, once Passingham surprisingly gets the girls to vote for a 24-hour strike and unknowingly plants the suffragette bug in Rita, the game completely changes. The men get fearful, Ford gets annoyed, and the husbands all cheer as their independent wives push around the powers that be. It’s only when Rita refuses to let up, is able to rally her troops around her, and watches as the car company crumbles that the real stakes surface.

Some of the best performances of the film lie with the male actors going through a psychological roller coaster. They all begin as supporters, willing to sneer at upper management as the scramble to rectify the situation, but once work stops and they’re laid off, the once charming display becomes a dangerous upheaval of hubris. Somehow the women were at fault for going too far to cause the men’s livelihood to cease, not the company for refusing to bend, break or compromise. Roger Lloyd-Pack and Mays see their wives fight for causes they too fought for, but find themselves believing it isn’t as important as their own. The former, a sick man, begins to guilt the woman he loves into ending her part of the fight while the latter gets tired of staying home with the kids and chores, thinking he didn’t deserve such a lot since he was a man who never lifted a hand towards those he loved. Such a thought—that a woman should be lucky to not get hit rather than believe no circumstance existed in which violence was acceptable, stood in line with the battle for equal pay. If you start making distinctions in one arena, you’ll begin to make them in all.

Rita isn’t alone on the frontlines, though, her co-workers are there almost every step of the way. Rosamund Pike also joins the fray as the educated Lisa, relegated to second-class citizen in her home yet unwilling to stay silent. She and Rita serendipitously cross paths a couple times before their true fateful connection is revealed, leading the seemingly better off woman to become the other’s biggest cheerleader. And there is also Miranda Richardson as Secretary of State Castle. The fact a woman would hold such a powerful position may look like an extreme coincidence with what’s at stake, but even she must find the courage to use her office for what’s right and not for what may get her Prime Minister elected next term to save her own job. These women all help support the fact that what Rita O’Grady did was no easy feat. But it is Sally Hawkins who moves, invigorates, and touches your soul. It’s an understated performance that becomes more powerful as this meek woman lets her viewpoints flow out, owning them rather than apologizing, to become the leader her gender desperately needed. Her Rita is knocked down emotionally too many times to count, but she never once thinks to stay on the mat.

[1] Sally Hawkins as Rita. Photo by Simon Mein, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[2] Bob Hoskins as Albert. Photo by Susie Allnutt, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[3] Geraldine James stars as Connie in Sony Pictures Classics’ Made in Dagenham (2010)

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