Monday 19 March 2018

Movies: Made in Dagenham * * *

(15A, general release)

Paul Whitington

In 1968, a determined group of Dagenham women decided they’d had enough. The east London suburb was the site of a huge Ford assembly plant, now gone, which was then the second-largest car manufacturing site in the world.

Most of the site’s 5,000-odd workers were men, but, in a leaky shed in a quiet corner of the plant, 187 or so women toiled unnoticed. They worked on huge sewing machines, putting together the leather upholsteries of Ford Cortinas and other models. Sounds like skilled work to me, but the Ford grandees thought otherwise, and the women were paid less than half as much as the men.

After a one-day strike over their unskilled status was savagely dealt with by the management, a young woman with no union experience emerged from the ranks to confront the central issue — discrimination on the basis of sex — and a stand-off ensued that began attracting international media attention.

That’s the premise of Made in Dagenham, and a very promising one it is too. However, what usually happens in British mainstream films that confront such social issues is that there’s a tendency to sweeten up the whole thing and Disnify the working classes into something more cuddly and camera-friendly.

Ergo Brassed Off and its ilk, films that may have had a serious point to make if they hadn’t been drowned in all the feelgood candyfloss.

Does Made in Dagenham do the same? Sort of, but not so much as to prevent a very engaging story from struggling to the surface. Sally Hawkins is Rosie O’Grady, a young mother of two who works in Dagenham and has never had a political thought in her life until her union rep Albert (Bob Hoskins) raises the issue of the ladies’ unskilled status.

The jerry-built shed in which they work gets so hot in the summer that the women strip down to their bras to keep cool, a source of endless mortification to Albert. The women’s shop floor leader, Connie (Geraldine James), has been distracted of late because of her husband’s health, and so when Albert suggests Rosie accompany him to the next union-management meeting, Connie agrees.

Rosie is horrified, not just by the smug complacency of the management, but also by the patronising indifference of her own union boss, Monty Taylor (the excellent Kenneth Cranham), who seems more interested in his job’s perks than his members’ interests. So she speaks up herself, and proves to be quite a firebrand. When Ford try to fob them off with empty promises, Rosie and Connie call a oneday strike. But their union are not backing them, and when Rosie leads an all-out strike even the men at the plant begin to turn against them.

Directed by Nigel Cole, Made in Dagenham sticks to the spirit rather than the detail of real events. Rosie, for instance, is a composite of several striking women, and the private lives of her and other characters are entirely fictional and created for dramatic effect. Thus we have Daniel Mays playing Eddie O’Grady, Rosie’s good-natured husband who arrives at the outer limits of his 60s chauvinism when his wife’s strike begins to effect his own livelihood, but whom you know will come good in the end.

The film is very entertaining overall, but it deals a little too readily in the kind of British movie stereotypes that date back to the Ealing comedies and beyond, and that time and again undermine the seriousness of the story.

There are Carry On touches here and there, and Hawkins has a long list of recurring mannerisms that begin to get on your wick after a while.

But there are other performances to enjoy. John Sessions is dry as a stick as the pipe-sucking prime minister, Harold Wilson, Rosamund Pike is very good as a Ford boss’s quietly militant wife, and Miranda Richardson is perfectly cast as Barbara Castle, the pioneering Labour politician whom Wilson called “the best man in my cabinet” and who was exactly the woman to break this deadlock.

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