“We are the working classes, the men and the women.” So goes the rallying cry in the quivering-lip climax of Made in Dagenham, a dramatization of the pivotal 1968 Ford autoworkers strike that led to the 1970 Equal Pay Act in the UK.
While the story of these striking seat-cover seamstresses is well worth telling (and sadly still relevant, given the need for last year’s Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act), screenwriter William Ivory and director Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls) do not tell it well. The basic facts have been mulched into a simplistic inspirational tale with a prevailing light comic tone and a surplus of clichés culminating in a self-satisfying pat on the back for all. It’s a story so politically correct, in our time, that no one would even think of questioning it; as such, Cole puts forward a film that’s wholly reassuring and completely unchallenging.
Sally Hawkins, so good in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky, here plays Rita O’Grady, a chipper machinist for Ford’s Dagenham plant. Having languished under unfair treatment for years, the women begin to feel that the times may be on their side, and Rita finds herself the popular choice to be their spokeswoman. As it turns out, she’s expected to sit and listen as the men—including Ford’s head of industrial relations (Rupert Graves) and the local union leader (Kenneth Cranham)—do the talking. But Rita heroically pipes up, setting in motion a workers’ walkout that settles into a long, tense stalemate.
The tension migrates from work to home for both management and the working class. On the council estate, Rita doesn’t quite get the full support of her gape-mouthed husband Eddie (Daniel Mays), while Rita’s new best friend Lisa (Rosamund Pike) turns out to be sleeping with the enemy; she’s married to the man tasked with quashing the strike. It doesn’t help the storytelling that the characters play as stereotypes—Mays as an overgrown yobbo, Pike as the deferential posh wife—whose character arcs will evidently lead to lessons learned. (To balance Mays’ neanderthal, we get Bob Hoskins as a sympathetic shop steward.)
Cole would rather caricature history than play subtle notes; as a result, the film’s most pertinent details nearly get lost in the shuffle. What turn out to be interesting in Made in Dagenham aren’t the social melodramas (like an underfed side plot involving the physical deterioration of one worker’s husband) but rather watching political sausage get made by the small-timers (the craven union boss more interested in his all-expense paid trips into the city for steak lunches) and the power players (Miranda Richardson’s Secretary of State for Labour & Productivity, caught between the rock of her gender loyalty and the hard place of protecting a delicate economy).
Cole has a fine cast here, but he hasn’t protected them by calibrating their performances for the screen. Made in Dagenham is right to champion greater wages for women, but when it comes to art, bigger isn’t always better.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]
Sony delivers another stellar A/V presentation with its Blu-ray release of Made in Dagenham. The film's visuals are a bit dim, dull and soft, but entirely by design: the transfer here is spotlessly clean and completely accurate in recreating the theatrical image, with an eye for detail and tone. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix likewise isn't going to blow anyone away, but the original soundtrack is all here, and with more multi-channel activity than one might expect from a fairly low-key drama: factory and protest ambience engages the surround channels nicely.
First among the bonus features is audio commentary by director Nigel Cole addressing the story's true history and production details, as well as providing character and thematic analysis.
"The Making of Made in Dagenham" (13:22, SD) is standard stuff, with behind-the-scenes glimpses and cast and crew interviews about working with Cole to tell the inspiring true story.
Eight "Deleted Scenes" (7:32, SD) include "Factory Floor," "Rita After Work," "Rita Buys a Magazine," "George's Medicine," "Rita Talks it Over with Eddie," "Hopkins and Tooley," "Barbara Castle Rearranges Furniture," and "Barbara Castle Brings News."
Also on hand are "Outtakes" (2:17, SD), the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:18, HD), previews, and BD-Live access.
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