Sony // 2010 // 113 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Byun (Retired) // March 9th, 2011
"Can we cope? We're women. Now don't ask such stupid questions."
Based on a true story, Made in Dagenham is a comic melodrama that transcends its formulaic plot devices to tell a genuinely inspirational story of female -- and worker -- empowerment.
In 1968, the Ford Motor Company factory in Dagenham, England employed 55,000 men and 187 women. While the men assembled the cars, the women worked in a literal sweatshop, sewing together seat upholstery in sweltering heat and a Dickensian work environment. When the company announced that the women's jobs would be reclassified as "unskilled" labor -- a ruse to justify paying them less for the same skill-intensive jobs the men were working -- it was the straw that broke the camel's back. The women went on strike, to have their status restored and to win equal pay. The strike would captivate the nation, bring the mighty Ford Motor Company to its knees, and lead to historic advances throughout the industrialized world for the rights of working women.
Made in Dagenham tells the story of these women through the (fictional) character of quiet, shy Rita O'Grady (Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky), who, with the guidance of their sympathetic union rep (Bob Hoskins), finds her voice and her passion as the spokesperson and de facto leader of her fellow workers. In undertaking their "industrial action," O'Grady and the other women run afoul of the male-dominated establishment, clashing not just with their bosses, but with the union leaders who are just as intent as the company upon maintaining the status quo.
Taking a mostly lighthearted approach to its subject -- comic moments and peppy '60s pop tunes abound -- Made in Dagenham isn't so much an in-depth study of the labor struggles of British female workers as an unabashed tribute to the courage and tenacity of the women who fought for equal treatment. As such, the film takes considerable liberties with history (none of the characters are based on actual people) and offers the kind of broad characterizations that audiences can easily cheer and boo. The bad guys are sneering, harumphing heels, and our heroines are representative 1960s English female types -- the deferential, mousy mother who evolves into a determined champion, the brassy, beehived sexpot, the Twiggy wannabe in hot pants, the no-nonsense World War II survivor.
The plot, too, is overly formulaic, following a well-worn arc that could describe just about any story of underdogs fighting the power -- the women are prodded into action, win early battles, suffer setbacks, and face a suspenseful final reel conflict that could dash all their hopes. No one who's seen Norma Rae will be surprised to find that Rita's husband (Daniel Mays) is supportive of his wife's activities until the cooking stops being done, the dishes stop being washed, and the kids stop being picked up from school. And as the opposition, the company bosses, represented by a thoroughly smarmy Rupert Graves and The West Wing's Richard Schiff as Ford's ruthless American plenipotentiary, are the most shamelessly patriarchal fat cats I've seen on film since Titanic's Masters of the Universe.
Nevertheless, I have to admit I was won over by Made in Dagenham. As predictable as the story beats are, the film is elevated by some seriously compelling acting by the likes of Hawkins, Hoskins, Geraldine James (Gandhi), Miranda Richardson (as an initially hostile but ultimately supportive government minister), and a solid supporting cast. Director Nigel Cole, who brought a similarly bracing, based-on-a-true female-empowerment story to theaters with 2003's Calendar Girls, is most interested in evoking the look and feel of the late Sixties (his compositions and colors are gorgeous) and celebrating the achievement of these courageous women, who embody the finest spirit of British pluck. If the film feels a trifle manipulative and trite, the victory its heroines won was very real, and the challenges they faced were genuinely affecting.
There's a climactic speech near the end of Made in Dagenham in which Rita reminds her union brothers, "Men and women, we are in this together. We are not divided by sex. Only by those willing to accept injustice." It's a profound moment that speaks as loudly today, as the Masters of the Universe continue to divide and conquer working men and women by exploiting their gender and racial differences, as it did four decades ago. And when Rita shames her well-meaning but clueless husband, who demands special credit for holding up his end of the marriage and for never having beaten her (which would be comical if it weren't actually something men, even today, expect praise for), by reminding him that this is merely "as it should be" and that equal treatment is a right, not a special privilege, it's a message that is as convicting of our society now as it was in 1968.
On DVD, Made in Dagenham looks and sounds terrific. The film looks slightly grainy and desaturated in many scenes, but this appears to be an intentional nod to the films of the era, and in general the image is sharp with a palette that ranges from rich, deep earth tones to effervescent primary colors. Sound quality is excellent, with a clean, full surround track (in English only) that showcases the film's soundtrack of lively pop songs. Special features include a slight but amusing gag reel, a set of mostly unnecessary deleted scenes (only one, giving us a bit of welcome background to a poignant subplot involving an aging married couple, would have added anything to the movie), and a commentary track by the director.
Made in Dagenham isn't groundbreaking cinema -- in many ways, it's as by-the-numbers as they come -- but as an enthusiastic, warm-hearted salute to a group of women who more than warrant the recognition, it doesn't need to be. It's a rousing, briskly entertaining film that tells a story worth telling, with a message worth repeating.
The court finds Made in Dagenham not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes