Like many, I slept on Nigel Cole’s 2010 period drama, Made in Dagenham. Set in 1968, the film fictionalizes a true story about a group of female sewing machinists employed by Ford who were tired of being classified as unskilled labor and went on strike for equal pay. Their efforts ultimately led to the Equal Pay Act of 1970. They are led by Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins), a modest working-class woman who continues to surprise herself and others with her natural aptitude to organize, negotiate, and lead an important political cause that is still relevant.
Barring the “for your consideration” trailer, I was interested in the film for a few reasons. For one, I love seeing women kick ass at work. I will stand by Broadcast News’ Jane Craig, The Larry Sanders Show’s Beverly Barnes, and Mad Men’s Joan Harris, or watch 9 to 5 and Beauty Shop with you any day. I’m especially moved by women fighting institutional forces to secure their rights. I was also a huge Depeche Mode fan growing up and, as someone who read Dave Thompson’s Some Great Reward several times during adolescence, knew that lyricist Martin Gore was born in Dagenham. My fandom prompted a minor interest in regional geography, with particular interest in Sheffield (The Human League, Pulp), Leeds (Gang of Four, Delta 5), and Manchester (the Factory Records scene, immortalized on vinyl and in 24-Hour Party People). I was interested in how regionalism opposed London’s cultural dominance over the music industry and the prominence of the British heritage film during Margaret Thatcher’s administration. Finally, Film Forager’s Alex Kittle wrote a great review of the film, singling out its strong ensemble. How often do you get to see Hawkins share screen time with Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson, and Rosamund Pike?
Dagenham reminds me a bit of Tom Hooper’s The Damned United, a British historical drama starring Michael Sheen about Brian Clough’s iconoclastic turn as Leeds United’s manager. Both films attempt to be sensitive to regional specificity and focus on historical movements and figures who attempted to buck the establishment while preserving British cinema’s national identity. Both also could serve as prestige films with a larger international following if they were marketed better. I think both films could be popular, at least to Academy voters, if they were given a wider release. We’re not dealing with kitchen sink realism here, but an aesthetic tradition that heightens grain and natural light to represent the limited options for the English working class notably represented by Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life, Ken Loach’s Kes, Mike Leigh’s early work, and recently Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. Essentially both films are biopics that would be palatable to audiences familiar with Stephen Rea’s The Queen and Hooper’s The King’s Speech. Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady, or at least Meryl Streep’s performance as Thatcher, is Oscar bait even if some critics argue that the film is sexist. But why must we fixate on British royalty and politicians when a number of films articulate the country’s shifting class, gender, and racial politics without upsetting generic and narrative conventions?
This film is solid. William Ivory’s screenplay may put too fine a point on how high the stakes are for these women, but the fight for gender parity and equal pay (and, I would add to that, the ongoing struggle for equality for women of color, queer communities, disabled communities, and girls within mainstream feminism) has radical connotations and is a big hairy deal. A minor issue, but sometimes composer David Arnold’s cues suggest a complex psychological thriller when we’re dealing with a historical drama about a group of women who are protesting for worker rights but also frequent dance halls, name-check Mary Quant and Biba, and engage in gossip and locker room talk to get through long days at the picket line. I think a number of popular selections were more successful, particularly Desmond Dekker’s ska classic “Israelites” and the theme song, penned by Billy Bragg and sung by ’60s-era pop star Sandy Shaw, who worked as a Dagenham Ford clerk.
The film’s success resides in its ability to balance the mundane with the revolutionary. I was moved by stolen moments between Hawkins and Lisa Hopkins (Pike), a Cambridge-educated, upper-middle class housewife married to a Dagenham Ford manager (Rupert Graves) whose views on labor politics are ignored. The women meet at their children’s school after O’Grady fails to convince her son’s teacher to stop abusing him. Despite class differences, they forge a meaningful bond. Hopkins lends O’Grady a dress for her meeting with Secretary of State Barbara Castle (Richardson, taking no guff) and encourages her friend to stay committed to the fight despite considerable adversity. Ford brass constantly puts pressure on the women, most effectively by penalizing their male counterparts. This forces the women to question their values.
These women aren’t professional politicians. This is a point a number of the machinists make during the film, particularly Connie (Geraldine James), a longtime Ford employee with a dying husband, and Sandra (Jaime Winstone), who has aspirations for fame and crosses the picket line for a modeling gig. During a heart-to-heart with O’Grady, Sandra admits that equal pay didn’t used to mean anything to her but worries that she’s letting down her friend. The two renew their investment in the cause and Sandra returns on set with “equal pay” scrawled across her stomach in lipstick like a proto-riot grrrl.
I also like that Dagenham includes men in the struggle for parity. Hoskins is known for playing Cockney tough guys in Long Good Friday and Brazil. Though he pulls out the Cockney accent here, he brings a gentle touch to floor manager Albert that reminds me of his performance in Mermaids as Cher’s standup boyfriend Lou Lansky. Albert and, with some convincing, O’Grady’s husband Eddie (Daniel Mays), understand that the struggle for equal pay isn’t exclusively a gender issue. It’s a human rights issue and an economic concern that would ultimately benefit men and women equally, particularly for the working classes whose labor is so often exploited. I wouldn’t say that only a man could direct a female-led ensemble like Dagenham, as Pike claims in the film’s DVD featurette. I have reservations about such participation, as men still dominate television and film’s above-the-line credits. I also can never assume that men are inherently feminist for deciding to take on such projects, as patriarchy may subtly shade or inflect their interpretations. But I am heartened when men like Cole and Ivory feel compelled to work on a project like Dagenham. As the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, union-busting, jeopardized worker rights, and a simmering class war suggest, we’re going to need all the help we can get to eradicate capitalist corruption. That’s a fight for men, women, and children. Sometimes, as illustrated in Dagenham, white women start the call to action. But it’s one we all must heed and solve together in order to defeat institutional disenfranchisement.