Made In Dagenham: Fair maidens, fair(ish) film


Made In Dagenham
113 mins
cert: 15
Dir: Nigel Cole

3/5 stars.

If you came across a British film about strikers, you’d be forgiven for assuming it would be grim, gritty and thoroughly glum. Directors almost feel obliged to maintain the reputation of the genre. And yet here we have Made in Dagenham, the latest effort from Nigel ‘Calendar Girls’ Cole, where you’d be hard pressed to make any of these adjectives apply.

The film follows Rita (Sally Hawkins), a working-class wife and mother in 1968, who toils with other women at the Ford plant machines in (where else?) Dagenham. To the horror of the women, their work is classified as ‘unskilled’ – which means less pay than their male counterparts. Rita is chosen as a spokesperson, and then thrust into the spotlight as their strike action sparks off a national debate about equal pay.

Certainly not grim, gritty or glum, this is a cheerful drama. Charming.  Cosy.  Comfortable, even – both in terms of the script and the performances. The cast is the pick of home-grown talent, featuring Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson, Rosamund Pike, Andrea Riseborough, Daniel Mays, Rupert Graves and Jaime Winstone. But there is no innovative experimentation here: ultimately, it is a film designed to sell at the box office, not break boundaries.  It makes you feel rather like you’re watching a BAFTA school play, as they muck about in a 1960s costume box.

Still, talent is talent, and above all things, Dagenham is capable. Slickly made, you feel you’re in safe hands as you’re directed from one heart-warming set piece to another, with cheerful humour and minimal tension. Unlike other strike films, here from the very start you have no doubt that the workers will emerge victorious, girl power will win the day, and the sun will shine a little bit brighter for it. Characters are one-dimensional to say the least – the sexy girl, the gobby girl – but each is played with great vigour, and many punters will come out of the cinema saying they felt they really knew all of the women (the fact that there’s little to know is beside the point). If anyone gives a standout performance it is Pike, who brings real emotional conflict and gravitas to her role as a Cambridge-graduate turned wife-housekeeper.

Feel-good films work better with fewer complications, and so perhaps Cole can be forgiven for simplifying historical characters and situations to give the piece an almost fable-like quality. And there are moments where this simplicity works in favour of communicating important messages; Rita’s husband demands gratitude for not being a violent, gambling drinker – stunned, she tells him: “That’s as it should be!”  But when issues of gender equality are too simplified the risk is run of undoing the intended message, and Dagenham treads dangerously close to this line. There is something faintly patronising and disconcerting in how Rita is guided every step of the way by Albert (Hoskins), her older male colleague, a quasi-paternal figure. The film is a triumph if you want a frivolous and funny take on a heroine’s fight for her rights, but a thoughtful, moving, issue-driven biopic this ain’t.