Film review: Made in Dagenham

June 27, 2011

originally published in the Raleigh News & Observer

Actress Sally Hawkins, the rising star of British cinema, headlines the winning U.K. comedy-drama “Made in Dagenham,” the funniest, warmest, most inspiring drama about ’60s-era British labor disputes ever committed to film.

That’s the marketing challenge the makers of “Dagenham” have on their hands. How do you make a movie about British women and their struggle for equal pay in 1968 come across as appealing, moving and fun? Well, you cast Hawkins in the lead, for starters.

Those who have seen Hawkins’ breakout performance in director Mike Leigh’s 2008 comedy “Happy-Go-Lucky” will know where I’m coming from. Hawkins possesses a special variation on that elusive and precious quality known as That Movie Star Thing.

A British stage veteran, she’s a formidable actress. But she also projects an essential goodness and humor that can win undying audience love within seconds. I’m telling you, it’s a powerful thing. I’ve considered moving to London to introduce myself, but that might come across a little weird.

“Made in Dagenham” is inspired by events at the Ford assembly plant in Dagenham, a working-class suburb of London. In 1968, female sewing machinists at the plant went on strike to demand equal pay.

Hawkins leads the way as Rita O’Grady, shop steward and married mother of two. Rita is a natural, if reluctant, leader, and the women in her crew – who toil in sweatshop conditions for a fraction of the salary earned by their male counterparts – are ostensibly unionized, along with the boys.

But none of the men in the union – or management, or the U.K. government for that matter – seem to care about the rather glaring pay disparity. It just doesn’t occur to them.

The invaluable Bob Hoskins stars as union organizer Albert Passingham, the one bloke on site sympathetic to the ladies’ cause. Together they fight the good fight.

Plenty of laughs, too

Lest this all sound a bit too heavy, let me assure you that “Made in Dagenham” is also one of the funniest movies I’ve seen this year. Dialogue among “the girls,” as they call themselves, is randy and poetic in that peculiar Cockney fashion. Director Nigel Cole (“Calendar Girls”) keeps the tone feather light, which throws the occasional tragic sequences into stark relief.

The film also leverages a terrific soundtrack of late-’60s rock and R&B to keep the energy up, and comments on the action in a sideways sort of fashion. Consider these titles in sequence, which tell a story of their own: “Get Ready” (The Temptations); “It’s A Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” (James Brown); “All or Nothing” (Small Faces); “It’s Getting Better” (Mama Cass); “You Can Get It If You Really Want” (Desmond Dekker).

It’s no spoiler to disclose that the strike action succeeds.

Like similar films in this territory – “Norma Rae,” the more recent “North Country” – the movie follows an inevitable arc.

If the movie has a core weakness, it’s this. Stories of underdogs bucking the system rarely end without the bucking, and “Dagenham” is guilty in several passages of defaulting to the standard narrative template.

What’s cool about “Dagenham,” though, and what lingers in the end, is the sneaky way the filmmakers have quietly delivered a feminist history lesson.

The Dagenham labor dispute wound up setting a critical precedent. The equal pay policies these women earned would spread across the industry, the country, and the rest of the developed world.

Through collective bargaining, I might add. “Made in Dagenham” is one of the great lost stories of the 1960s, delivered with humor and heart.

And it stars Sally Hawkins. Did I mention that?

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