It's 1968. London is swinging, Paris is rioting, Prague is steaming, another Kennedy is shot. Revolution, real and ersatz, is in the air. But away from the cameras and far from Carnaby Street, at a sweatshop in the English suburb of Dagenham, the air is just fetid.
Next door, in a vast modern plant, Ford employs 55,000 men on a gleaming assembly-line. Here though, under a leaky roof in an outlying building that dates back to Dickens, 187 women are plying their trade at sewing machines, stitching the cars' leather seats. Old and young, stripped to their bras in the steaming heat, these women are not rebels, yet they helped give birth to the one sixties revolution that truly succeeded - the most enduring, and perhaps the most profound.
Made in Dagenham tells their story, and I confess to an initial skepticism, a fear that the tale would be reduced to sloppy sentimentality - you know, to Norma Rae Crosses the Pond, or worse, given the presence of Nigel Cole in the director's chair, to Calendar Girls Hit the Picket Line. In too many recent Brit flicks, the once proud tradition of kitchen-sink realism has degenerated into working-class schmaltz.
But not here. This time out, with a few exceptions, the inspiration feels solid and earned, not saccharine and contrived.
That's partly because, in the fictionally composite figure of Rita O'Grady, the film has found a credible heroine and a superb actor to flesh her out - Sally Hawkins who, as she so ably demonstrated in Happy-Go-Lucky, enjoys a deft touch in the Everywoman role.
Rita has two children, a husband employed at the adjoining factory, and, in the early sequences, a legitimate beef with Ford management - they want to reclassify the women's intricate work as "unskilled labour." She and her colleagues possess an ally in Albert the amiable shop steward (Bob Hoskins), but not necessarily among the rest of the union's male hierarchy. Solidarity has its own gender bias, and the script is adroit at dramatizing the multiple fronts of the women's war against injustice. Even their ostensible friends are enemies.
Still, when Rita leads her group on a 24-hour walkout, the guys offer their patronizing support - they see it as a cute lark. But when that walkout evolves into a strike, and that strike eventually shuts down the entire plant (seems none of the men can sew), tensions escalate everywhere. More significantly, so do Rita's demands, and the banner is unfurled: "Equal Pay for Equal Work." Start the revolution.
By now a whole lot of important folks are paying attention: the national press; the Ford masters in the United States who are worried about setting a "global precedent" (with good reason as it turned out); and the responsible Minister in Harold Wilson's government, who just happens to be a woman - Barbara Castle (a delightfully hard-nosed Miranda Richardson). Although the film is competent at tracking the battle through these upper-echelons, it most comes alive at the lower levels and in the smaller moments.
Two examples stand out. In the first, Rita's increasingly frustrated hubby insists, truthfully, that he's a really good fellow, that he's always been faithful and loving and never once hit her or the kids. Listening, she reddens with anger, countering his proud boast with this cold reply: "That's as it should be." In the home, as in the workplace, what should be a basic right is dangled as a generous privilege.
This heads directly to the second example, when Rita receives help from an unlikely source: the blonde, well-dressed, Oxford-educated wife of a Ford manager, her talents now guiltily spent playing host to her husband's ambitions. And therein lies one of the secrets to the success of the women's revolution. From factory workers to Oxford grads to government ministers, it cut across class differences. Even their ostensible enemies are friends.
Not everything works that well. A bit of the Brit-flick sloppiness creeps into a couple of gratuitous subplots - like, at the faux-comic end of the spectrum, the seamstress in hot pants with modelling aspirations, and, at the maudlin extremity, the old war veteran suffering from dementia and depression. Yet the climax is redemptive and, courtesy of another telling detail, endearing too.
There, outside the Minister's office, Rita and Barbara convene to announce that Equal Pay legislation is nigh. But before the two make history, they make small talk. About what? Sorry, you'll have to listen, but I will venture this - men could learn from it, women won't need the lesson.
Made in Dagenham
- Directed by Nigel Cole
- Written by William Ivory
- Starring Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson
- Classification: 14A