The timing couldn’t have been better – just as the chilly weather has started to kick in, we’ve been given this winter-warmer of a film, from Calendar Girls director, Nigel Cole.
Made in Dagenham is the story of how a 1968 strike, which started at the Ford assembly plant in Dagenham, ended with the implementation of the Equal Pay Act of 1970. Sally Hawkins, who won numerous awards for her role in Happy-Go-Lucky, is this time cast as Rita, the impromptu leader of the seamstress’s strike. Her strong will and sense of injustice takes her far from her council flat in Dagenham to private meetings with Barbara Castle, played by Miranda Richardson whose sassy portrayal of the Secretary of State is one of the most enjoyable characters in this film.
In fact, despite the history-inspired plot, this is very much a character-based film. Rosamund Pike stands out from the rest of the cast as Lisa Hopkins, who , with enunciated English and designer clothes, aligns herself with ‘the women’ and their cause, despite being married to a Ford associate. She’s the perfect opposite to Hawkins’ scrawny determination, and their unity highlights the important fact that this is not a class battle, but a battle against sexual discrimination.
And yes, there are a fair few awful men in this film. From corrupt union representatives, to downright misogynists, and even the bumbling Prime Minister (John Sessions as Harold Wilson) – this film certainly doesn’t shy away from what I will, slightly grudgingly, describe as ‘girl power’. But it’s not all bad news: Daniel Mays may have been glossed over at the premiere and remained in the background through the film’s promotion, but he is perfect as everyman Eddie, Rita’s very ordinary husband. Between the two of them, they offer a believable on-screen relationship which is far more believable than those usually found in other ‘based on a true story’ adaptations. Bob Hoskins is also rather endearing, if not a little panto at times, in his role as (non-corrupt) union rep, Albert.
Jamie Winstone also gives a noteworthy performance as wannabe-model, Sandra, who brings a touch of glamour to the political proceedings and does the Dagenham dialect with grating accuracy. Her polar opposite – for this is truly a film of contrary characters – has to be Geraldine James as Connie, who brings some of Made In Dagenham’s few sombre moments, along with husband George, played by the usually comedic Roger Lloyd Pack.
There’s also the faultless attention to sixties period detail and a catchy, although not exactly subtle, soundtrack, featuring Jimmy Cliff’s You Can Get It If You Really Want, and a theme song by former Dagenham worker, Sandie Shaw.
In a sense, it’s nothing new – a blend of a Southern version of The Full Monty, mixed with the Calendar Girls keeping their clothes on. But on the other hand, it’s a light-hearted celebration of a great moment in the history of gender equality. As is often the case when it comes to ‘feel-good’ films, it’s nothing we’ve never seen before, but it is the sort of thing we’ll happily watch again and again. Whilst Made in Dagenham might not keep you entirely informed of all the political details, or dealings between Labour and the trade unions, at least you walk away from it knowing that should you ever need to borrow a dress from a posh woman, they’ll probably lend it to you if you’re both in it for the cause of womankind. Gritty? Not really. Girl power? You bet’cha.