Friday, 8 October 2010

'Made in Dagenham' review:

'Made in Dagenham', directed by Nigel Cole, is the sort of cheery, cheeky, working class comedy-drama that at one time came to typify commercially viable British cinema output: from the likes of 'The Full Monty' to 'Billy Elliott' to Cole's own 'Calender Girls'. These are "uplifting" and "heartwarming" films which aim for mass popularity, whilst retaining a degree of social consciousness, and this latest film is no different. Based on events which took place in 1968, 'Made in Dagenham' looks at the decision of female sewing machinists, at the Ford Motor Company's manufacturing plant in Dagenham, to go on strike and demand to be paid the same amount as their male counterparts. The event was apparently crucial in establishing the Equal Pay Act, which was finally passed into law in 1970.

Sally Hawkins stars as Rita, a likable and forthright worker who leads the ladies on a difficult journey that puts them at loggerheads with their employers, their union and even the British government. Joining Hawkins, in an ensemble cast comprised mostly of British actors, are Miranda Richardson, Bob Hoskins, Rosamund Pike, Jaimie Winstone, Kenneth Cranham, Rupert Graves and John Sessions. The trouble is that, almost without exception, they play their roles as broad caricatures. John Sessions is particularly sub-par, playing Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson as a shallow, comic parody that wouldn't be out of place of 'Stella Street'. Sessions works with the film's authors to undermine Wilson's role in history, suggesting he had limited involvement in the wide ranging social reforms that characterised his time in office.

Miranda Richardson is equally lacking in finesse as Secretary of State Barbara Castle who is presented to us here as a proud member of the sisterhood: a strong woman in a man's world, working among incompetents. She decides to back the women against Wilson's order (whilst he is out of the country) and in the face of the powerful (and very masculine) Ford Motor Company. I presume a difficult juggling act was required: an active and supportive Wilson would arguably have undermined the "sisters doing it for themselves" angle taken by the film. Perhaps as another consequence of this choice; trade unions are also vilified as a working class old boys network. The filmmakers have clearly carved a story out of history which best serves their desired narrative arc.

However, this "girl power" angle is undermined by the film, regardless of these choices, on account of Sally Hawkins' tearful hyperventilating whenever she gives a speech or stands up to authority. I loved Hawkins in 'Happy Go-Lucky' and rate her as an actress, but here she plays Rita as though she is about to burst into tears whenever things get confrontational which would seem to play into the stereotype (popular at the time) that women are irrational and prone to outbursts of uncontrollable emotion. She is as likable and charming as ever, but doesn't convince as the leader we are told she is. By contrast, the real women of the strike (shown in interviews during the end credits) seem to be made of sterner stuff.

A highpoint for me was the presence of American stage actor (and 'West Wing' alumni) Richard Schiff who completely steals the show in a limited supporting role. Not only is he far more intense, naturalistic and authentic than his co-stars, but he also takes a thankless role as "the big Ford guy" and prevents it from becoming two dimensional. When he makes his point to the unions, and later the UK government, that Ford simply can't afford to play female workers the same as men and that, if forced to, they will pull manufacturing out of the UK, he does so in a way which seems reasonable and motivated by a grasp of economics rather than a burning evil at his core (though there is a case to be made that they are one and the same thing). But, sadly, Schiff has stumbled into a film of dick jokes, thickly layered with images of generic 60's cliché: it's less 'Mad Men' and more 'Austin Powers' as Jaimie Winstone struts around the factory in her hotpants.

The thing is though: it somehow works. By the end of the film I was pulling for Hawkins and her friends and found myself having to resist the urge to pump a fist into the air as they overcame the odds. Despite the gloss and its shallow nature, 'Made in Dagenham' is somehow every bit as winsome and heartwarming as it sets out to be. Part of this is down to the film's liberal, socially spirited agenda. It is an overtly political film: a Capra-esque polemic about the little guy standing up against power. It is a film where the good guys quote Karl Marx and our sympathies lie with those taking industrial action. And I'm not about to argue with any of that.

'Made in Dagenham' is also, in spite of its bombast, optimistic conclusion, a sad film in many ways. The Ford man's foreshadowing of a time when industry will leave the UK and go abroad, where labour costs are cheaper, is of course a reference to the world we live in today. It may sound like so much hokum, but there is also a sense of working class solidarity and collective pride which no longer exists: especially in the pessimistic and socially regressive Britain of 2010.

Will Nigel Cole's movie inspire the little man to stand up for himself (or herself) again? Can it transcend the political apathy that is arguably a root cause of our contemporary malaise? Or, paraphrasing the less florid words of Oliver Stone, will it do "a spittle's worth of good"? Better films than this have tried. But it would be churlish of me to deny that I had anything other than a good time watching 'Made in Dagenham', in spite of its many flaws.

'Made in Dagenham' has been out on general release in the UK for a few weeks and is still playing. The film has been rated '15' by the BBFC.


  1. That'd be "root cause", not "route cause", Mr Beame. Feel free to correct your blog and delete this comment. :)