There's no shortage of films about workers joining together and fighting for higher pay or better working conditions in whatever factory, plant, coal mine and field the story happens to be set. Whether it's a documentary (Harlan County, USA or Live Nude Girls Unite!) or fictional account of a real-life event (Matewan or Blue Collar), the world of proletariat strife makes for good cinema with folks taking a desperate stand for what is right against the never wavering oppressive greed of management. Made in Dagenham is the newest film to take on this genre and it delivers a pleasing, subdued story of women who ain't gonna take this abuse any more.
Consider it Norma Rae with an English accent. Much like the 1979 film that won Sally Field a best actress Oscar in the title role, Made in Dagenham centers around a group of women in 1968 who are fed up with their low-paying jobs at a Ford plant and take their cause to the street. What makes Made in Dagenham different is it is completely lacking the aggressive tone that other films about labor movements have at their heart. Made in Dagenham is positive, congenial and so very English, utilizing humor and quiet struggle more than loud voices, showing a different kind of strategy that might get these women what they want.
After delivering a nice montage of retro commercials to set the time and place, we learn the harsh reality of the Ford automotive factory in Dagenham: men outnumber women employees 55,000 to 187. Naturally, being 1968, the outnumbered female machinists making leather seats by hand are a forgotten lot. They are paid the going rate for unskilled labor and have to face a workroom that is so stiflingly hot, many remove their tops and sew in their brassieres. When it storms they are forced to use buckets to catch the rain that falls from the ceiling. It's not a great place to work and they don't get paid much to do it. Things have to change.
The women are slowly taking their complaints to the all-male leaders of their union, but they are not given the time and attention men would receive. Plus, let's face it --they are women complaining about these things and sexism was still rampant in this day and age. Heck, 42 years later and there are still pockets of resistance to the idea of giving women a fair wage. This was a man's world and the men in control liked the set up, they don't want a bunch of women coming in demanding more pay and endangering the people's jobs who get top billing in the factory. That's right, the men.
When the soft-spoken and unassuming Rita O'Grady (Sally Hawkins) gets invited for a sit down with the union leaders she begins to instigate the charge. While the men plot the course the ladies need to take, Rita can no longer hold her tongue and she stands up to them while telling them just what is going to take place: a one-day walkout. Invigorated by how empowered this action makes them feel, the 187 woman decide to up the ante and go on a full-on labor strike until their demands are met.
The late 1960s was a time of upheaval around the globe. While the United States was in the midst of the most intense social revolution since the Civil War, many other nations were facing cultural attacks. In England, it was a hotbed of unions waging war against management with thousands of strikes taking place across the country.
What made this particular fight groundbreaking is it was a small number of women on the picket lines who were getting little help from the men at the Dagenham factory. Basically, they were on their own versus Ford.
Early on in the movie, I was taken aback that the tone of these women is so affable regarding demands and discourse as their complaints are broached. I thought to myself, it will pick up in vitriol as the campaign ensues. I am used to seeing images of front lines bathed in screamed rhetoric, spilled blood on the pavement, bricks clenched in raised fists before they are tossed into glass in confrontation after violent confrontation. Made in Dagenham has none of that. Based on events in the film, it's the most civilized labor action that I've ever seen. It's tea and conversation rather than burning cars and heaving molotovs at scabs crossing the picket line.
Made in Dagenham relies on a solid ensemble cast to carry the story. Unfortunately, there are some tangents that veer outside the factory and these diversions are hit and miss. While trying to add depth to the characters, these sidesteps take away from real depth of the story -- the strike against Ford. Dwelling on some of the clichéd elements of the women's lives only takes away tension from the question if they will get their demands or not. Hawkins is good as the increasingly stubborn, but always polite, leader of the machinists while Bob Hoskins gives great support as an encouraging union employee who loves O'Grady's tenacity.
I'm sure that other English labor conflicts aren't similar as the one portrayed in Made in Dagenham, an entertaining statement on equal rights and pay that is as polite as an afternoon of crumpets and croquet in the park. There's no violence or danger, which is not a bad thing to be missing, just rather unusual for this sort of film. Made in Dagenham is a union-lite tale with jokes, nice women to root for and a pleasant piece of history telling that is a crowd-pleasing kick against 1960s status quo.
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