Made in Dagenham, an immensely likable and even inspiring film from England, is based on a true story. It dramatizes the 1968 strike of sewing machinists at the Ford assembly plant in Dagenham, England. The all-female workforce walked off the job in protest to the fact that they were not being paid an equal rate with their male co-workers. Going from being treated as a sexist punchline to eventually shutting down production at the Dagenham plant, these women brought the issue of equal pay for equal work to the world’s attention and, ultimately, played a large part in the passage of legislation designed to guarantee equal pay regardless of sex. And, while it might sound like the material for standard, overly sentimental move-of-the-week, Made in Dagenham is both a warm-hearted tribute and an immensely entertaining film.
Usually, I’m wary of films that claims to “pay tribute to strong women,” largely because they always 1) seem to be rather condescending towards the women they’re claiming to pay tribute and 2) always seem to be intent on providing a very narrow definition of what it means to be “strong.” Far too often, either stridency or an idealized noble savagery is presented in the place of “strength.” What makes Made in Dagenham a true tribute to strong women is that it portrays women as individuals and as human beings (as opposed to idealized figures of either reverence or loathing). What a novel idea! All of the strikers — from Sally Hawkins as the strike’s leader to Geraldine James as the oldest striker to Jaime Winestone as the youngest — are treated with a definite (and refreshing) respect yet at the same time they’re never so idealized as to become plastic saints. They’re not presented as being models of perfection. Instead, they’re just working mothers and wives who are simply standing up for their rights and you would have to be heartless not to end up rooting for them.
On my list of my 25 favorite films of 2010, Made in Dagenham was number #22 and that’s largely because of Sally Hawkins’ performance as the strike leader. Hawkins is hardly a household name but if you’ve seen her in films like Happy-Go-Lucky, An Education, and Never Let Me Go, then you know that Hawkins is one of those rare performers who is capable of both being ordinary and a star at the same time. She brings an authentic feel to her working class characters even when she’s acting for a condescending and elitist director like Mike Leigh. To understand just how important Hawkins is to the success of this movie, just try to imagine the exact same film but starring either Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts. One can imagine that either Bullock or Roberts would be given a lot more inspiring speeches (complete with triumphant music in the background) and a few scenes where they would get to say something sassy (and ultimately pointless) to all the one-dimensional male chauvinists standing in their way. They also probably would have contracts to keep from having to act underneath the hideous (but historically authentic) beehive hairdoes that Hawkins and the other women in the film have. Hawkins, however, gives her performance without any of the usual Hollywood safety nets and she is completely and totally winning playing a strong-willed but inherently nice woman who struggles to be a wife, a mother, a worker, and an activist all at the same time. As I watched her performance, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my mom who raised four daughters on her own and who was the strongest woman I know. I ultimately felt as if Hawkins performance was a tribute to not only my mom but every other woman throughout history whose strength is, far too often, ignored by those who do the recording.
Made in Dagenham is not a perfect film. For all the authentic moments in the film, there’s a few that are a bit too obvious and, when they show up, they fit in so awkwardly with everything else on-screen that they temporarily throw the whole film out of whack. This is the type of film where, as Sally Hawkins gives the most important speech of her life at a labor conference, she looks up just in time to see that her husband (Daniel Mays) has shown up in just the nick of time and is now standing in the back of the room, watching her with an apologetic smile on his face. It’s a sweet scene and, for all I know, it actually did happen that way but it still temporarily makes the movie feel like a self-consciously inspirational Lifetime movie.
And then there’s the issue of Miranda Richardson, who essentially has an extended cameo role as Barbara Castle. Though Castle is known not at all in the States (most of the people in the theater with me seemed to think Richardson was supposed to be playing Margaret Thatcher and I might have thought the same if I hadn’t looked the movie up on Wikipedia before seeing it), she was quite prominent in the UK. A left-wing member of Parliament and a pioneer for women in politics, Castle was Secretary of State for Employment at the time of the strike and, as shown in the film, she eventually intervened in the strike and helped to bring about legislation designed to guarantee women equal pay with their male co-workers. As such, Castle is as much of a part of this story as the actual strikers and you can’t fault the movie for including several briefs scenes featuring her watching the situation from afar. What you can fault director Nigel Cole for is allowing Richardson to overact to such an extent that her scenes come across as so heavy-handed that they epitomize every negative cliché of a feminist film. Richardson plays her role with an attitude that seems to shout, “The real star is here,” and I found myself resenting her because she seemed to be determined to ruin a truly inspiring film.
But the thing is, despite these flaws, Made in Dagenham is an inspiring film. It’s inspiring because of Hawkins and it’s inspiring because of an ensemble of actresses (including Hawkins’ Education co-star Rosamund Pike who does a great job in a role that could have felt artificial if performed by a lesser actress) who come together perfectly. I saw Made in Dagenham on January 1st and it was the perfect film to start 2011 off with.
What you said about the film being a tribute to all strong moms everywhere is probably why I will see this considering we share that one similar connection outside of film. Yeah, I’d say my mom was also the strongest woman I will ever know. 🙂
Oh! and somehow I forgot to mention that one thing that, as I left the theater, I was thinking, “I got to make sure I let Arleigh know this about Made in Dagenham…” Andrew Lincoln has a small but very important role. He only has one scene but he makes an impression playing an overly strict, perhaps sadistic school teacher.
Sounds like an ominous character turn for Mr. Lincoln in follow-up seasons?
Oh! And even better, he used his real accent in Made in Dagenham. 🙂 Or close to his own accent — at the very least, it was British as opposed to the SouthernWesternScottish accent he used in Walking Dead.
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