Made in Dagenham: Nigel Cole’s Inspirational Working Class Tale

The crowd-pleasing Made in Dagenham is a logical follow-up for Nigel Cole, a British director who has specialized in making curiously upbeat working-class sagas, such as “Saving Grace” and “Calendar Girls.”
The femme-driven, fact-based melodrama is well acted by some of the best actresses working in British cinema toady, such as Sally Hawkins and Miranda Richardson.  However, going out of its way to be upbeat and inspirational, the movie is too melodramatic and schmaltzy (in a cloying way).
“Made in Dagenham” could be described as the British response to “Norma Rae,” Martin Ritt’s drama of 1979, which won Sally Field her first Oscar. At the center of this sentimental story is a group of bright and feisty factory girls, who presumably shook their world with their spirit and courage, and in the process achieved a social change in fighting the Ford management and their own labor union.
Historically, the film portrays a decisive moment in the 1960s decade of upheaval, when the fight for equal rights and pay was unexpectedly led by ordinary working-class women. They are idealized in the story as women who firmly and stubbornly kept one foot in the kitchen, one foot on the factory floor, while listening to the pop coming over the radio and telly from far-off London (only 19 kilometers but a world away).
Sally Hawkins, who gave a distinguished, Oscar-nominated performance as the tirelessly cheery heroine in Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky” plays Rita O’Grady, a young married mother, and one of 187 women who work for the Ford Motor Company, the region’s principal employer.
Unlike their male counterparts in the automaker’s new main facility, the women work in a shabby (really decrepit) old 1920s plant with a leaky roof, pigeons flying overhead, and stifling sweatshop conditions.  
Worse, despite their highly specialized work sewing car seat upholstery, the women are classified as “unskilled” labor. They are paid, like women who are their American counterparts, a fraction of the men’s pay.
Clearly, the women are living in a rigid patriarchal system, a man’s world, where husbands, like Rita’s Eddie (Danny Mays), are the principal breadwinners and the figures of authority in all the matters that count.
Never mind that it’s the women who are the backbone of the home and family–their work is vastly underappreciated and their wages are secondary.
Against all odds, the saucy, tireless girls develop an intimate camaraderie, defined by strong and meaningful bonds and plucky spirits, which help them get through the workday.
In the first, and most promising, reel, we get to meet Rita’s friends and peers, such as Connie (Geraldine James), the group’s shop steward and respected matriarch, who has to cope with an ailing husband.
Then there is Brenda (Andrea Riseborough), a young, vivacious femme with a zest for letting loose and a beehive hairdo to match. Also in the clique is Sandra (Winstone), an aspiring model with Twiggy looks whose sights are set on London; she is the one who boldly introduces Mary Quant hot pants to Dagenham.
When the tale begins, Rita, like Norma Rae, lacks political consciousness and self-awareness, perceiving herself primarily in the traditional roles of wife and mother. Also like Norma Rae, the film features a sympathetic union representative, Albert (the ubiquitous Bob Hoskins) who encourages the women to bring their grievances to Ford management.
Albert coaxes Rita into attending a meeting along with shop steward Connie, and the patronizing head of the union local Monty (Kenneth Cranham), who instructs Connie and Rita to nod, smile, and let him do the talking.
What Rita expects to be just another day out of work (complete with free lunch) turns out to be much more dramatic and eventful, when Ford’s Head of Industrial Relations Peter Hopkins (Rupert Graves) tries to fob off the women’s demands with all kinds of minor concessions.
Outraged by the lack of respect in the meeting, Rita surprises her cohorts and herself by speaking out sharply. She asserts that the women will no longer be ignored, and that they will plan a job action if they are not re-assigned the “skilled” label, and if they are not given pay parity with the male workers.

The equal pay issue turns the women’s grievance from a minor annoyance to a potentially explosive problem for Ford. If these 187 femmes (initially perceived as cogs in the wheel) set a precedent, what will that mean to female Ford employees all around the globe?

 No one is more pleased with Rita’s surprising show of backbone than Albert, who confides that his had mother worked herself into an early grave as an underpaid factory hand. Albert and Connie encourage Rita to step up to a leadership role. Soon, Rita takes her sisterhood of upholstery seamstresses out on strike, later expanding her campaign to other underpaid women throughout the union.
At first, Eddie and the other Ford workers are supportive of the women’s feisty stand, but they are also condescending and amused and bemused by the whole thing.  Nonetheless, as the women stay out on strike, the men begin to feel the impact. When the plant runs out of finished seat upholstery, they simply can’t go on making cars. and the entire Dagenham facility is put on temporary closure. Men facing lay-offs and unpaid bills begin to turn against the striking “girls.”
The women’s strike challenges and shakes off the entire social order. Indeed, as much as the strike is an inconvenient industrial action, it’s also an assault on the status quo. Men like Eddie, performing the family’s domestic chores as Rita runs around leading protests, struggle with conflicting feelings of pride and dismay at the women’s empowerment.
Connie’s husband George (Roger Lloyd Pack), still suffering the psychic wounds of WWII, personifies the rift between the old society haunted by war and deprivation, and the new movements of daring liberation reaching all the way to Dagenham.
In due time, Rita finds some unexpected allies, such as Peter Hopkins’ wife Lisa (Rosamund Pike), a fiercely intelligent Cambridge-educated woman who, like the working-class femmes, feels trapped by upper-middle-class domesticity and a husband who suggests she keep her opinions to herself.  Upon meeting Rita by chance at the school that both their sons attend, Lisa encourages Rita to stick to her guns. Ford, meanwhile, sends an American hatchet man to quell this all-too-European show of labor unrest.
Despite attempts to dismiss and put-down Rita as the “Revlon Revolutionary,” her fight for equality captures the public imagination, generating headlines around the country. As the women’s campaign for equal pay makes it all the way to Westminster, they secure a far more influential ally, Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson in a shiny performance), Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity. Blunt, forceful, smart and progressive, Mrs. Castle fully understands the women emotionally, but she also must balance their demands with Ford?s threats to take production out of the U.K. altogether.
Throughout the campaign, despite a pile of obstacles, Dagneham’s women do not lose their feisty spirit, common sense, bravado—and humor—elements that help them stand together, take on their bosses and face an increasingly belligerent local community. Daring to stand up and push boundaries, they changed the rules of the game not only for factory workers but also for the rights and expectations of women everywhere.
The ending informs us that the women’s feisty activism, the strike by the Dagenham sewing machinists and Ford’s subsequent settlement, led to the introduction of an Equal Pay Act, which became a law in 1970.