By Richard von Busack
Here’s a piece of strayed history:
That 1978 advertisement, a piece of a vanished world (perhaps it’s not dead but only sleeping) is the subject matter revived in Made in Dagenham.
With its thin but shiny layer of nostalgia, Nigel Cole’s Made in Dagenham makes strike-prone late 1960s England look more colorful than the dreary Northern California weather outside. (Even the projects here look freshly painted.) The film is full of robust, even hammy theatrical performances. A David Arnold soundtrack of some less-obvious Sixties needle drops adds some spice: played against a slightly slow-mo armada of women on bicycles heading for the factory gates, the Lemon Piper’s silly “Green Tambourine” sounds surprisingly muscular, like an outtake from The Who Sell Out.
In 1968, at the huge Ford Motors plant in Dagenham, London, a group of some 187 female seamstresses sew auto upholstery. It’s a job classified as unskilled labor, performed in a leaky and un air-conditioned garage. A committee of women brings their grievance to two different union representatives: a selfless and soulful Bob Hoskins who believes in the women’s aims, and Kenneth Cranham, as the featherbedding type of union leader.
The upshot is a walkout…and the resulting bottleneck paralyzes the Ford plant. The matter arrives on the desk of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s government: labor minister Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson) sympathizes with the worker’s claims, despite the threats phoned in from Detroit (Danny Huston does the voice of the highest exec there).
Sally Hawkins (Happy Go Lucky) soulfully underplays Rita, the worker and mom drafted to speak for the strikers. Her unaffected humbleness sells a show-stopping speech about one of the characters that doesn’t make it to the finish line.
If you like passing on the received idea that Daniel Mays is the next Michael Caine, observe how uncommonly well Mays handles scenes you'll really groan to see: the neglected husband of the female crusader, having to make dinner for the kids and burning it. They also serve who go without ironed shirts.
Pleasing to the occasional point of bonelessness, this film ends with interviews with the real Dagenham strikers; Cole (Calendar Girls) handles the cast and the subject matter with amiable humor; with bits like the scurrying reporters dressed like secret policemen in fedoras and raincoats, trying to get a handle on the story and coming up dry with tags like “Boadiceas in hairnets” and “Revlon revolutionaries”.
It’s hard to resist a film that suggest the struggle for equal rights is a continuation of the David and Goliath struggle of England in World War II. Yet all we need is one look at the male workers from the vintage news footage this includes...and we can see a group that’s less white, more hard-pressed and less articulate than the men in this movie. And a subplot about a friendship between Rita and an upper-class feminist (Rosamund Pike) is missing some of the thorns it would have had in real life.
But who can argue the film’s point? What was made in Dagenham by these seamstresses is still useful for the rest of the world. One wants to defend a movie that quotes Karl Marx at his most prescient: “Social progress can be measured exactly by the social position of the fair sex”.