It probably wasn’t a difficult decision to have Nigel Cole direct “Made in Dagenham,” given that he was an ambassador of female solidarity just seven years ago with the Women’s Institute-based “Calendar Girls.” While that film dealt with contravening expectations of what is ‘proper’ for the elder housewife, ‘Dagenham’ has significantly bigger fish to fry. The women in this latest feature are without the luxury of retirement, knitting, and country fetes, instead burdened by prejudice within the workplace and seeking to overturn gender inequality at the Ford Factory they share with male colleagues. Many of these colleagues are related to the women, who are a little miffed to learn that their employment classification has been downgraded from “skilled” to “unskilled.” When union representative Albert Passingham (Bob Hoskins) looks for a female rep-recruit for their next meeting with company executives, the women put good girl Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) forward to fight in their corner. Rita surprises by demanding a one-day staff walkout at the meeting, and proceeds to instigate indefinite strike action when the group’s request for equal employment status and pay is rejected. While the equal pay issue is concentrated around Dagenham, the ensuing media furor forces a national debate and attracts the attention of British employment secretary Barbara Castle.
Cole isn’t the only common denominator between ‘Girls’ and ‘Dagenham,’ both of which follow the same formulae in building concerns for the women around the perceived “main” concern. The latest film contains the same scripted pitfalls of flagrantly constructed subplots, this time involving a factory veteran struggling with her husband’s depression, and an aspiring model searching for a better life. These characters feel like frail attempts to burden Rita, and their arcs are flimsily mapped out, to the extent that ‘Dagenham’ feels as if it’s schematically converting everyone to the same principal cause of equality, when it doesn’t really need to. Somewhere between depression and modeling comes Miranda Richardson grandstanding in the Cabinet as a plucky Barbara Castle, bellowing at her misogynist aides and rolling her eyes at a lifeless Harold Wilson (John Sessions). The scenes at Westminster feel too drastic and stilted to mesh with the grittier aspects of the East London story, and the interchange of these two worlds does little to broaden our perception of the political dynamic of Britain in the 1960s. However much it seeks to demonstrate this through the fierce support of working woman Castle, the film (and Richardson) revel too much in the character to create anything substantive.
The film largely achieves what it does through a canny depiction of Dagenham itself, which is not so determinate about its women or the hierarchy within their workplace as you might imagine. Their initial position on the periphery of vaguely fuss-kicking discontents appears a thoughtful approximation of the group’s ambivalence, and their unspoken subservience in relation to the male members of the factory feels wholly convincing. These women aren’t aware of a platform on which to pose their problems beyond casual conversation in the local club, and let’s face it: who wants to talk about work when they’re drinking on the weekend? Bureaucracy is so alien to them that it takes a degree of persuasion to elect a representative, which turns out to be the popular wallflower Rita. Hawkins proves that Rita was the right choice of role for her; she colours O’Grady with plenty of self-doubt but also a degree of passive, learned absorption that allows her to eventually flourish. If this is an “Educating Rita 2,” then Hawkins succeeds where Julie Walters didn’t, maintaining the timidity of her early scenes while her outlook transforms. When called upon to make a late speech at a political conference, she feels as incomplete an orator as she does at her first union meeting (her passion makes up for her lack of polish). She walks a tremulous line but she always seems bound by the responsibility for change that the film aims to rouse us with, dashing off the line “It’s rights, not privileges” to her wounded husband with the self-righteous bravura of a woman committed.
Rita’s marital problems are a clichéd dramatic device that offers nothing new in that regard, and as with many films, such as “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and the recent “Secretariat,” the man gets his nose put out of joint by a wife daring to usurp him of his status as the breadwinner. Surprisingly, 'Dagenham' becomes far more valuable in dissecting class issues than those of gender, or at least the gender “battle,” anyway. In setting up a handful of thoughtful, well-acted exchanges between Rita and glamorous housewife Lisa (Rosamund Pike), who are both unhappy with a teacher at their children’s school, the onus becomes more on uniting a collective. There is a creeping sense of universality in what begins as a tiny, concentrated issue, and this relationship conveys the message more than any element of the Downing Street shenanigans. 'Dagenham' has some charm, but that charm is mainly the result of novel subject matter and a striking lead performance. It’s a great triumphant story of right-over-rule, but the filmmakers don’t seem to know enough about that story, generalising many of the characters’ problems to align with a main gender focus. Archive documentary footage of the real Ford heroines accompanies the main credits, yet as documents of adversity go, “Made in Dagenham” is a light gloss on the actual historical events. This factory may have ceased operation, but the production line of underdog victory tales lumbers on.