The true story of how the 1968 Ford Dagenham Strike by 187 sewing machinist, which led to the introduction of the Equal Pay Act, is told in genteel fashion by the Calendar Girls director Nigel Cole. The emphasis is placed firmly on light-heartedness, domestic relationships and the value of friendship, with discussions about the condition of workers in 1960s Britain kept firmly in check. Consequently, it packs an emotional rather than political punch that will please audiences more than trade unionists.
Sally Hawkins plays fictional Rita O'Grady and – as in her award-winning turn in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky – her character, despite poverty and hardship, breezes through life and faces her obstacles and battles with humour and honesty.
Trouble brews when the machinists are designated "unskilled" workers by their paymasters, ensuring they are paid at the lowest end of the scale. Rita becomes their designated spokesman, with the strikers encouraged by sympathetic union rep Albert, played by Bob Hoskins. He offers paternal advice and encouragement to the girls and it's an affable, likeable warm performance conducted with a twinkle in his eye. He's the only man shown in a positive light.
The British Ford bosses and the union reps have no idea what has hit them when Rita arrives at the talks and refuses to play by the rules. Cole paints these men as seriously compromised by a need to appease their US overseers. It's only when Ford send over an American big gun (Richard Schiff) from Michigan that the women have a foe with sufficient clout to heighten the sense of drama, and give a sense of how great their fight was. The letdown of the movie is that the hardships on the picket line are underplayed by the need to keep a jolly tone.
Nonetheless, as Cole showed in Calendar Girls, his strength lies in highlighting the domestic drama behind the headlines. It's here that we see real adversity. Rita's biggest fight is not on the picket line, but with her passive-aggressive husband (Daniel Mays). Try as he might to be supportive of his wife, he can't help but feel emasculated looking after their two children, while his wife is on strike. It's a neat role reversal of traditional gender roles.
'Made in Dagenham' is released in the UK on 1 OctoberReuse content