‘Made in Dagenham’s Message Is Served With a Dollop of Sugar and Zest

Satisfyingly formulaic, perhaps to a fault, Made in Dagenham delivers its obvious, progressive political message wrapped up tidily in a fun, mostly sunny period piece that avoids becoming stridently polemical in favor of being predictably entertaining. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this Trojan horse approach – I prefer my message movies with a dollop of sugar and zest rather than unsubtle over-the-head mallet bashing – except when the fun of the film threatens to eclipse its essentially serious message. This doesn’t happen in Made in Dagenham, but it skirts awfully close to frivolity on occasion.

Though based on true events that happened at the British Ford Motor plant in Dagenham in 1968, I imagined, while watching the film without any prior knowledge of the story, that many of the details of the film, including the lives of the women portrayed here, would be fictionalized or composites — that’s just generally the way these things go. So, further research indeed verified that there was no Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins), the plucky leader of the striking women, nor (and this was most surprising to me) that they actually worked at main plant at Dagenham, but at an outlying work yard a mile or so away.

But the main story is true (mostly). The Ford plant employed thousands of male workers, but only 187 women as sewing machinists, who cobbled together the vinyl interiors for the cars. Downgraded to unskilled labor, Ford also paid them significantly less than men doing comparable work in the main plant. As the film opens, the local union boss for the women (an avuncular and blustery Bob Hoskins), urges the women to go on strike for a day, and also to elect a representative to attend a sit down between the union and the Ford bigwigs. The women elect Rita, perhaps sensing the fighting spirit buried just beneath the surface of her demure demeanor.

Rita is the kind of amalgam that generally only exists in based on truth movies about plucky underdogs. She’s a feisty rabble rouser hiding beneath a deceptively mousy mien, a sort of natural feminist who comes to her views and takes a stance out of experience and the grind of the day to day life of the working classes, rather than deliberate politicization. Her motivations are fundamentally, and simply (in a good way), moral.

Nevertheless, Rita becomes so fiercely individual as the movie moves along, you begin to wish she had been real, and this is all the doing of Sally Hawkins, who’s emerged lately as a dynamo of British acting. She is so invested in her character and her cause, so irresistible, that it would be impossible not to follow her of the edge of a cliff. She is both steely and sunny, possessed of the same sort of unstoppable and indefatigable optimism she displayed in her revelatory role in Happy Go-Lucky.

Hawkins receives an able assist from Miranda Richardson as Secretary of State for Employment Barbara Castle, a politician who obviously sympathizes with the women’s increasingly visible strike. Richardson brings an impish feistiness to her complementary role. Though in a much more powerful position than the girls at the plant (obviously), you feel that Castle has fought analogous battles against similarly entrenched chauvinism in her climb up the ladder.

Though trundling along through some melodramatic highs and lows – Rita rallying the girls to go out on full strike, with all the attendant excitement of standing up for themselves; troubles at home when the plant completely shuts down because of the women, sending all the men home without pay; and some personal tragedies thrown into the mix for good melodramatic measure — everything comes through to a triumphantly rousing, if predictable, finale.

Despite its by-the-numbers plotting and characterization, Made in Dagenham is never not entertaining. Much of this is due to Hawkins (of whom I’m a huge fan), along with the colorful supporting roles by Richardson and Hoskins. But a good chunk of the film’s charm owes to the period dress and peppy pop soundtrack (with some great left field choices that you just don’t hear in other movies set in the ’60s), which keeps things from getting too dour or preachy.

Made in Dagenham also has a slightly faded, grainy (almost Super 8-ish) look to it, giving it the illusion of having actually been made in the ’60s, not just set in it. And if at the end of the day it almost undermines itself by resorting to cliché and wavering on the details, the film is so big-hearted and amiable its simplifications and liberties become almost welcome, a sort idealized world where injustices are resolved easily with optimistic pluck.

DVD extras include the standard grab bag of deleted scenes (none of them all that interesting or significant) and outtakes. A short behind the scenes feature with the director and much of the cast doesn’t reveal any of the liberties that film took with the story, perhaps figuring that most of the audience will be unfamiliar with the story and take their word at face value. I mean, they are under no obligation to actually point any of this stuff out, but maybe just an acknowledgment that the main character is not an actual historical person would at least clarify things for viewers not willing to do a little leg work on their own. A commentary track with the director, focusing mostly on production and recreation details, is agreeable and lighthearted, if unenlightening.

RATING 6 / 10