Rights, not privileges, it’s that bloody easy.
—Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins)
The period tunes plinking out of radios or layered behind montages in Nigel Cole’s Made in Dagenham are all perfectly appropriate for its time. Small Faces, Traffic, and Desmond Dekker summon up a time and mood, but as this overly winsome film goes on, they feel more and more like a crutch for a movie that can’t quite face up to its deadly serious topic. Though he has vegetables on his menu, Cole tries time and again to serve up dessert first, in the form of perky tunes, self-consciously retro costumes (beehives and hot pants), and light humor, distractions from a story that doesn’t need the help.
In 1968, the Dagenham Ford plant in Essex, England was a sprawling mini-city of industry the likes of which were rarely seen outside of Michigan. It employed tens of thousands of workers less than 200 of them women. William Ivory’s fact-based script draws a bead on that tough little band, already frustrated at film’s start when Ford classifies them as unskilled laborers and so reduces their wages. Never mind that the leather stitching work they’re doing is as complex as what the men are doing on the factory floor.
Their blustery union representative, Albert (Bob Hoskins), takes a special interest in the women’s cause and comes blundering through their shop, eyes averted and fending off cheeky jokes from workers, many working in their underwear during the hot summer months. When he announces that they might be taking “industrial action,” a quick straw poll shows that quietly determined Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) is the favorite to serve as one of their representatives for a meeting with the Ford management. Union boss Monty Taylor (Kenneth Cranham) tells her to mind her P’s and Q’s and speak only when spoken to (or preferably not at all), but Rita comes unexpectedly to life at the meeting. By the time she’s back at the factory, the women have walked off the job completely, demanding pay equal.
Rita’s part in all this is limited. But for Hawkins’ astoundingly empathic performance, she’s little than an empty shell for voicing platitudinous dialogue, jetting rather unexpectedly from the mouth of this rather mousy woman. Ivory’s script could be charitably described as rote, when not wrongheaded, tipping personal background into the story of the strike, which quickly takes on national importance once the entire plant comes to a stop for lack of sewed leather. Rita’s militancy emerges out of nowhere, with little more motivation than that she’s had enough and support from her comically clueless husband (Daniel Mays).
Mired amid the melodrama and simplistic characterizations is a hardnosed nub of a story about workers’ and women’s rights, one rarely seen in movies anymore. Rita shows undeniable nobility as she knives through the self-serving rhetoric not just of the management, but also the mealy-mouthed male “comrades” in her union who seem more interested in padding their expense accounts than actually fighting for the rights of their members. Rita’s refusal to accept the compromises and condescension is underscored in a subplot in which she confronts her son’s sadistic teacher, which reminds us of exactly how low on the socioeconomic ladder her council estate-dwelling family rates.
The focus on certain rights as utterly axiomatic is surely welcome. And the tragedy lurking in the wings only highlights the drama’s import: though workers triumph here, it won’t be long before Margaret Thatcher’s coalition snaps labor’s back. Such shadings are quite beyond this team of filmmakers, consistently pursuing the cute and the obvious. Their effort leads where you might expect, another easily digestible tale of adorable British pluck.