by Robert Henderson
Made in Dagenham
General release 2010
Directed by Nigel Cole.
Main cast: Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Kenneth Cranham, Miranda Richardson, Rosamund Pike, Jamie Winston, Andrea Riseborough and Geraldine James.
This is a piece of childishly crude feminist propaganda, a fact which has (sigh) inevitably guaranteed it glowing reviews in the mainstream British media. The film, based on a true event, is set in 1968 with the machinists at the Dagenham Ford factory (all women) up in arms at being downgraded to unskilled which provokes them to strike. They may have been justified in their anger, but the film is so one-eyed in its portrayal of the argument for equal pay that it has all the veracity of a Tom and Jerry cartoon, with the male characters in the role of Tom and the women cast as Jerry. British listeners to the BBC Radio 4 serial The Archers will have a good idea of how the men are portrayed, as weak or moronic bastards. Their roles call for very little change of facial expression as all that is required are looks of bafflement, anger , fear and condescension.
Sally Hawkins as the shop steward Rita O’Grady is marginally less irritating than she was as Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky in which she carried cheerfulness to the point of imbecility, but to balance this slight relief her character of Rita is even more unbelievable. She begins as a neurotically nervous cockney factory hand who transmogrifies overnight, in heroically unconvincing fashion, into the leader of the women after their original shop steward Connie (Geraldine James) becomes terminally distracted by her personal life. (This involves a tiresome sub-plot revolving round Connie and her husband George (Roger Lloyd-Pack) who is, yes, you have guessed it, useless because of his experiences in bombers in the war, the feminist sub-text being the suffering of women lumbered with a man )
With the exception of the union convener Albert Passingham (Bob Hoskins), the men routinely behave in a male chauvinist fashion along the lines of “don’t you worry your pretty little head about it”. As for Albert, he might best be described as a Quisling in the feminist cause. It is one thing to believe in equal pay, quite another to be indecently gleeful when the machinists’ strike brings the entire Ford factory to a halt and puts thousands of men out of work.
Miranda Richardson as Barbara Castle has the most cringeworthy scenes, either humiliating two of her senior civil servants (played by Joseph Kloska and Miles Jupp) who literally cower before her, fraternising in sisterly solidarity with the Dagenham women’s representatives or haranguing Harold Wilson (a rather feeble effort by John Sessions).
There are modern feminist stereotypes gratuitously thrown in for good measure. Andrea Riseborough plays a promiscuous girl who is taking the same view of sex as men (and thus becoming in feministspeak empowered) and Jamie Winstone is a wannabe model who eventually has to choose between Ford giving her a break into modelling and remaining true to the strikers. Guess which she chooses. Yes, that’s right, it’s support the strikers and go back to machining after the strike is over. Thus sisterly solidarity is verified.
The working class male is not spared parody or lecturing. Rita’s husband Eddie (Daniel Mays) is besieged with clichés as he is shown struggling with household chores while Rita is off on union business. He is also a target for stern feminist lectures. He tells Rita he is not happy with her going off on union business all the time. He is accused of trying to keep her in her place. He has the temerity to suggest that it might not be all for the best that the factory has been brought to halt by the machinists strike putting thousands of male breadwinners out of work. He is told sternly that he is being unreasonable. At his wit’s end, Eddie makes a heartfelt inarticulate plea to Rita by pointing out that he is a good husband who works, doesn’t go out on the booze, beat the children or hit her. This provokes a short denunciation worthy of a Soviet commissar as his wife shrieks that such behaviour should be the male norm. Rita then heads off on yet another union trip. The saga ends with Eddie making a Maoist-style confession of fault as he catches up with her as she addresses the TUC conference.
Monty Taylor (Kenneth Cranham) as an old-style union fixer, a man in favour of compromise and perhaps complicity with management , and all too fond of his expenses. He is cast firmly in the role as the enemy within the feminist camp for not being rigidly aggressive and unreasonable. As he dealt in moral greys rather than blacks and whites, he did bear a vague resemblance to a real human being. It was by far the best performance in the film.
Unambiguously risible is the relationship between Rita and Lisa (Rosamund Pike) the wife of the managing director of Ford in Britain Peter Hopkins (Rupert Graves). Lisa is decidedly posh and wealthy, yet strangely her son goes to the same school as Rita’s boy, which is where they meet. Not only that , but the two women rapidly form a mutual admiration society with Lisa at one point arriving on Rita’s council flat doorstep to assure her that having obtained a first in history from Oxford , she had always wanted to know from someone who was making history (in this case Rita) what it was like to make history. (I must confess I could not stifle a guffaw at this point).
Poor Lisa is also subjected to a second scene which could only provoke derision. Ford of America send over an executive (Richard Schiff as Robert Tooley) to sort things out. Tooley goes to dinner at the Hopkins’ house where he is treated to a lecture by Lisa about the iniquity of Ford’s treatment of the machinists. Her husband Peter unsurprisingly shuffles her off to the kitchen to stop her talking. This is portrayed as an outrageous side-lining of Lisa as having nothing useful to say because she as a woman. Any normal human being would interpret as a man not wanting his wife to queer his pitch with his boss.
What the film failed to address in any meaningful fashion was the social circumstances of the time. This was an age before it was thought reasonable for women to be single mothers or for a man and a woman to set up home without being married. The norm was for couples to be married with the man as the breadwinner. If the woman worked it was a bonus but not considered essential. That being so it was quite reasonable for the men in the film to believe that the prime good was for the male wage to be put before that of the female. Yet when this idea was raised by the odd character in the film it was treated as absurd. In 1968 it was the norm. There was no conception within the film that in the social circumstances of the time the men might have had a point. These were working class people who relied on their pay just to survive from Monday to Monday. Nor was there an attempt to reflect on what 40 years of feminism have wrought; no questioning of whether women with children working would be a be a long term good or the fact that we now have a world in which it is impossible for large swathes of the population not to be able to afford to have a family life without the woman working.
A shame that a strong cast was wasted on such ludicrous stuff.