On Made In Dagenham and Doubting Your Own Sobriety

Alice Gregory | December 2, 2010

There are certain realities that can make a sober person feel stoned: the size of a “small” soda at the movies, Times Square at rush hour, the fact that slavery ended less than 150 years ago. In each case, the same mantra resounds: Are you serious!?

Made in Dagenham, Nigel Cole’s dramatic retelling of the 1968 Ford Dagenham car plant strike, relies on hyperbolic history to evoke this same you-better-believe-it feeling. The film insists, again and again, that you confront just how recently sexual discrimination in the workplace was legal. Led by Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins), the plant’s band of all-female sewing machinists walks out in protest of their unfair pay. They first demand that their “unskilled” labor be reclassified as “skilled,” which would upgrade their wages, a request that’s more than just semantics. In a meeting with Ford executives, Rita pulls some leather swatches out of her handbag and demonstrates how they fit together, how none of the seamstresses use patterns. She makes a convincing argument without even mentioning the unethical premise of wage discrepancies between men and women. Inspired by their foreman’s encouragement and local media coverage (“The Revlon Revolution!”), the women make their way from suburban Dagenham to Westminster Palace where they recruit the support of Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity Barbara Castle, who agrees to pass the Equal Pay Act of 1970 within the year.

The film opens and closes with Jimmy Cliff’s manically sunny “You Can Get It If You Really Want.” The women swear like sailors, wear sherbet-hued separates, and ride cute bikes with banana seats. It’s almost enough to make an underpaid overworked life seem like fun! 1960’s ready-to-wear does for women what army fatigues do for men: It makes them look much better than they otherwise would. It’s hard to tell from the interspliced archival footage just how realistic the cinematic portrayals are. Even mid-summer, hard at work, stripped down to their nude, polyester brassieres, the women look luscious. The factory floor is fleshy, full of bosoms, and their boss marches around with his hands up like horse blinders.

But Rita, our heroine, is the least voluptuous of the bunch. Sally Hawkins’s jutting clavicle and rabbity mouth are like the physical manifestations of inner tautness. She isn’t fifty yet, but as Orwell’s saying goes, she has the face she deserves. It’s electric and elastic and half-irritating to watch. Rita, like her fellow factory workers, spends the film steeling herself against unjust men. There’s a lot of lip-quivering and almost-crying. When the strike comes into focus, her family life suffers. Her son watches too much TV. Her daughter’s pigtails are left to the hands of her cartoonishly incapable husband, Eddie. Breakfast burns. He runs out of laundered shirts.  Without Rita’s income, bills go unpaid. Their new refrigerator gets seized. Already used to the daily actuality of strikes — opposed to their invigorating drama —  Eddie tells her, shaking, “Welcome to the real world, Rita. This is being on strike. You run out of money and you scream at each other.”

Made In Dagenham does a few things very right, all to the same effect of complicating what could have been too-neat a human interest story. The side-plots are where the real sacrifices are revealed: Rita’s only-just-saved marriage, her coworker’s hesitation at getting involved with the cause (she doesn’t want to neglect her sick husband), the bitter words from men at the factory whose salary is being held for the “mere principle” of equal pay. When Rita goes to meet Secretary Castle, she wears a flouncy, red dress from Biba, a popular London department store. The frippery is borrowed from Monica, the wife of a Ford executive, who despite reading history at Cambridge, is treated like a fool by her husband. Though Rita’s and Monica’s incomes don’t align, their ethics do. The friendship is another one of the film’s productive, complicating subplots; Monica is an exception to the otherwise all-working class cast, and her support makes the struggle seem larger, more political, less personal.

Made In Dagenham has good intentions. It’s aggressively competent, though maybe not memorable. The story is engaging. The cast is charming. But again, like those experiences that make you doubt your own sobriety, it’s hard for high-pitch history to maintain a lasting effect. I might have been awed at such recent injustice while in the theater, but against my will, I doubt very much that I will remember this film.