A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was an evil empire and a young hero, the last hope for freedom and justice. Through a series of trials and tribulations, the young hero moved closer and closer toward success — until finally, he overthrew the evil empire once and for all.
Made in Dagenham
At the Michigan
Sony Pictures Classics
At the Michigan
That was “Star Wars.” Now, listen to the plot of “Made in Dagenham.” A long time ago, in a country far, far away, there was an evil company called Ford that made cars and reaped massive profits by paying hardworking women half what they paid the hardworking men. But one day, a female worker named Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins, “Happy-Go-Lucky”), the last hope for freedom and justice, decided to get involved with the workers’ union. With the assistance of bumbling, low-level union organizer Albert Passingham (Bob Hoskins, “The Long Good Friday”) and fellow worker Connie (Geraldine James, “Alice in Wonderland”), she began a massive campaign for equal pay, taking the women on strike and overthrowing the evil company’s evil policy.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Ostensibly based upon a true story, this tale of the 1968 Ford sewing machinists’ strike at their Dagenham production facility in Britain presents an oversimplified, cut-and-dry version of the year’s events. The film’s central conflict is reduced from a multifaceted issue of ethical business practices to an uncomplicated black-and-white struggle à la the Dark Side versus the Light Side — the virtuous British women struggle against the malevolent American corporate system and their enforcer, the delightfully sleazy Robert Tooley (Richard Schiff, “The West Wing”).
Director Nigel Cole (“A Lot Like Love”) and screenwriter William Ivory (“The Closer You Get”) go to excruciating lengths to enforce this image of straightforward duality. Lisa Hopkins (Rosamund Pike, “Die Another Day”), the disgruntled, Cambridge-educated wife of a high-level Ford executive, becomes O’Grady’s woman on the inside, a spy who lends the striking workers much-needed support. Similarly, then-Secretary of State for Employment Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”) is portrayed as a staunch supporter of O’Grady, a starry-eyed cabinet minister looking to achieve change.
But in real life, Castle lobbied to curtail the power of Britain’s trade unions, while Hopkins certainly wasn’t O’Grady’s friend — O’Grady is in fact a fictional pastiche of women’s rights leaders. What’s more, the impact of the strike on working families is practically passed over. Though O’Grady and her husband lose work because of the strike, they nonetheless send their children to the local private school and live in the same middle class flat throughout the movie, removing the sense of adversity. There’s no denying the reprehensibility of sexist labor policy, but this extensive revisionism undermines the film’s power.
Nonetheless, despite these core flaws, “Made in Dagenham” still somehow manages to entertain, thanks mainly to Hawkins, whose raw charisma and pure charm transform the film into a heartwarming quasi-historic journey that places the viewer within the frame. Historic questions aren’t important when there’s a protagonist as engaging as her character, a waif of an everywoman whose mere presence inspires solidarity and confidence. The power behind her performance anchors a talented cast that features some of Britain’s finest character actors, including Hoskins, James and Daniel Mays (“Atonement”) as O’Grady’s mostly supportive husband.
It’s this collection of brilliant onscreen talent that allows viewers to ignore the liberties that Cole takes with history. Equal pay legislation may not have come until two years after the movie’s end, and today’s Ford plant in Dagenham may no longer manufacture cars. But in the context of the movie, none of this matters. When watching Hawkins and her exceptional peers, reality is indeed somewhere far, far away.