Made in Dagenham (Nigel Cole, 2010)

08Oct10

Sally Hawkins (Rita O’Grady), Bob Hoskins (Albert Passingham), Miranda Richardson (Barbara Castle), Rosamund Pike (Lisa Hopkins). Screenplay by Billy Ivory. Directed by Nigel Cole. Rating: 15. Running time: 113 minutes.

Made in Dagenham is cinema’s tribute to the movement for equal pay in the same way that Milk was a retelling and appraisal of the fight for gay rights in America. Both feel remarkably cool and fresh in places, and each tries equally hard to blend humour with serious history. Like Milk, Made in Dagenham works. And yet for all its virtues, it doesn’t work quite as well as it should.

The girls the film shows us and has us believe were the pioneers of second-wave feminism are much younger than the real Dagenham strikers were, but the quirky beauty and delicious fashion sense of all of them excuses this seemingly cynical move. That’s right; the girls here aren’t political philosophers or first-class thinkers. The lead woman in the group of sewers for the seats of Ford cars is as interested in dresses as she is in rights. But she understands, as she crudely puts it, that having a dick shouldn’t entitle you to more money for the same work. With this in mind walk-outs ensue, gently encouraged by their remarkably soft (and perfectly casted) union representative played by Bob Hoskins.

Watching this situation develop is delightful. The girls descend on Westminster armed with banners and simple chants, and the balance is struck perfectly between painting the characters as heroic but also pretty ordinary and girlie women. To draw an analogy to Milk again, the rapid-fire mash-up of footage of Harvey running for public office and repeatedly failing is a feel replicated here – it’s truly funny without once undermining the content of the cause.

But the film doesn’t stay like this, and here, unfortunately, lies the problem that I oh so hoped could be avoided. Naturally the true impact of long-term striking needed to be looked at, and a suicidally depressed husband feeling neglected by his wife’s busy schedule injects a bit of gloom into this tale to say the least. What’s so bizarre, though, is how out of tune this sadly is with the rest of the film. We’re put in a mood and provided a perspective on the strikes that doesn’t prepare us for the arrival of such drama, and when interspersed with humorous takes on chauvinistic Ford executives’ reactions to the industrial action, absurdity is only the start of what springs to mind.

I can’t emphasise enough what a shame this is, because in other respects the film really does excel to a remarkable extent. In particular it’s truly great how subtly oppression is shown to not only be in the workplace – brief conversations between women and schoolteachers and their husbands hint at much more than the strikes themselves do. The fleeting footage we have of the response within Whitehall also works very well. But for all this, and especially despite Made in Dagenham‘s irresistible aesthetics and acting, it sadly falls significantly short of the mark when considered as a collective whole. Their story is humbling in its quiet inspiration; unfortunately the director’s take on how we should perceive the events doesn’t quite match it.

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