(2010) True Life Story (Sony Classics) Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson, Rosamund Pike, Jamie Winstone, Andrea Riseborough, Geraldine James, Nicola Duffett, Matt Aubrey, Kenneth Cranham, Daniel Mays, Andrew Lincoln, Roger Lloyd-Pack, Rupert Graves, Richard Schiff. Directed by Nigel Cole
It is no secret that women in the workplace are not treated the same way as men are. Some of it is a biological necessity – after all, men don’t have to take off of work to have babies. However, when given equal work to do, women have never been paid equally to men.
In Britain that is as true as it is in the States. At the Ford plant in Dagenham, source of most of the Fords on the road in the UK, most of the women are involved with sewing the upholstery for the cars. They work in an industrial barn with no air conditioning that gets so hot that the women strip down to their bras and girdles in order not to faint while they are working at the sewing machines. This makes for some fairly awkward moments whenever any men walk into their domain.
One such man is Union rep Albert Passingham (Hoskins) who has to impart the bad news that their bid for being classified as “Skilled Labor” has been turned down by Ford’s executive leadership. This means they will continue to be classified as “Unskilled Labor” and thus make significantly less than their male counterparts.
This doesn’t sit well with the ladies or Albert and so they vote to authorize a one-day walkout to show management they mean business. Albert chooses young mother of two Rita O’Grady (Hawkins) – who is married to a line worker, Brian (Aubrey) to accompany himself, Union boss Monty Taylor (Cranham) and shop steward Connie (James) to a face-to-face meeting with management. However once they arrive it becomes clear that Monty not only doesn’t support equal pay for the workers, he is colluding with Ford to make sure it doesn’t happen. Incensed, Rita throws down some fabric and tells the execs that they are welcome to try to sew them into a car seat and leaves to tell her co-workers to walk.
Thus begins the story of a real-life 1968 labor action that would lead to Britain’s 1970 Equal Pay Act which was a landmark victory in the women’s rights struggle in Britain. Made in Dagenham is a dramatization of those actual events – Rita is actually an amalgam of several real women who were involved in the leadership of the strike – and a fine one at that.
The movie doesn’t just focus on the strike itself, although that’s definitely a focal point, but more on how it affected the workers and the community. Rita suffers from a good deal of vitriol because many townspeople are angry at the lost wages incurred during the strike (of course they change their tune once the strike is resolved). Her friends also have their own crosses to bear; Connie is dealing with a husband (Lloyd-Pack) who is suffering from battle fatigue and other psychological problems due to his involvement in the Second World War while Sandra (Winstone) dreams of being a model, which Ford uses against her to help try to turn the strikers back to work.
In the meantime the strike attracts the attention of Secretary of State Barbara Castle (Richardson) who sympathizes with the strikers but is under enormous pressure from Prime Minister Harold Wilson and from Ford’s legal consul (Schiff) to bring the strike to a speedy conclusion or risk having Ford pull out of Britain entirely, something that would pretty much doom Wilson’s party in the next elections.
Hawkins does fine work as Rita. She’s shown her plucky and cheerful side in Happy-Go-Lucky and here adds a core of steel to that pluck. She begins on the mousy side but ends up a leader and the transformation is very organic. Hawkins gives the character flesh and blood.
Unfortunately not all of the other characters in the movie get the same kind of attention, particularly the male ones. They are mostly either sympathetic or antagonistic to Rita’s cause and rarely are they given much more context than that. The women fare a bit better, but often take a back seat to the flash fashions they are given to wear which are colorful and mod (in stark contrast to what the real strikers wore which was more drab and utilitarian – but then the women who worked at Dagenham at the time were a good sight older than they were portrayed here). The era is captured nicely on the soundtrack as well.
Dagenham works as a history lesson and gives us reason to understand that the fight still has a long way to go – women in the United States make about 77% of what men earn, for example – but films like this remind us that it just takes a willingness to stand up for what you believe in and the courage to stay standing when adversity is thrown at you to effect any sort of change.
WHY RENT THIS: A lively and plucky look at a group of women who helped change the British workplace permanently. Hawkins gives a marvelous performance.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the characters could have used some fleshing out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of bad language as well as some fairly sexual scenes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sandie Shaw, who sings the film’s title song, once worked as a punched card operator at the Ford Dagenham plant, although years before the events of this film took place..
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.4M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a moneymaker unless I miss my guess.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
TOMORROW: Mars Needs Moms