I'm first to admit that I didn't know a damn thing about the events leading up to the United Kingdom's Equal Pay Act of 1970 until I saw Made in Dagenham last night, and other than that a major strike preceded it and that it was largely spearheaded by then-Secretary of State Barbara Castle being true I have no idea to what degree the film fictionalized, embellished, or streamlined said events. But with that disclaimer out of the way, I thought it was a pretty good movie! A blunt one absent a shred of subtlety, making sure every idea it wants out there is hammered in via huge, inspirational speeches or fiery, overwritten, impromptu monologues, but a fine glimpse into an era of rapid social progress nonetheless.
The film doesn't waste time; as it opens in 1968 there's already massive unrest amongst the female workers at the Ford Dagenham car assembly plant, who are being paid considerably less than men doing equally skilled labor. Soon enough this unrest morphs into a strike led by ordinary sewing machinist Rita O'Grady (a fictional character played by Sally Hawkins compositing various real female labor leaders into one), a strike which soon cripples the plant, leaving the men without work as well, and catches the attention of Ford, the unions, the Prime Minister, and Secretary of State Barbara Castle (a highly non-fictitious British politician played by Miranda Richardon).
Though the path the film takes towards the Equal Pay Act is a wildly predictable one — something I'd say The Social Network proved a movie doesn't have to be just because you know the ending — it still works on account of its performances, its energetic, frequently humorous tone, and especially how big the movie feels in spite of its small budget and small stature. It's a film about sweeping social change and it really does feel sweeping as we watch the plant shudder to a halt, the workers file out en masse, the national news turn their focus on the strike, Ford threaten to pull its business from England, and Rita speaking in front of larger and more powerful crowds as her cause makes its way towards a meeting with the Secretary of State. The narrative powers forwards and upwards at a brisk clip that keeps the "tainment" in "edutainment."
There's a litany of supporting players, including Rita's husband, several other female workers who receive one character trait apiece, a sympathetic union head played by Bob Hoskins, and a number of sexist businessmen who care about only the bottom line and do little but twirl their mustaches, but no one outside of Sally Hawkins's Rita and Miranda Richardson's Barbara Castle stands out in the least. I understand why the film needed a lot of warm bodies — depiction of a massive social movement can't feel massive without a lot of people — but it made specific individuals difficult to invest in. But Sally Hawkins is a chameleon of an actress who slips just as seamlessly into her overworked and underpaid auto worker as she did into her elite boarding school teacher in Never Let Me Go, her accent, posture, and very essence taking on a more burdened, working class vibe, and she anchors the movie with panache.
Made in Dagenham has its share of flaws, almost all in the script department, but as a snapshot of a time and a place of social change it's a successful work that may move you and warm your heart and even win a laugh or three. I specifically refer to "social" change as opposed to "political" throughout this review, because I don't really think believing that women should be paid the same amount as men for the same amount of work is a "political" stance unless you're a lunatic. But I know there are a lot of lunatics just like that out there. I'd say they're the one group of people I wouldn't recommend this film to, but on the other hand, shouldn't they see it more than anyone?
3 Stars out of 5