“I am woman, hear me roar!”
…could have been the title for soon-to-be-released Sony Pictures Classics’ new film, MADE IN DAGENHAM, the true story based on the 1968 strike at the Ford Dagenham car plant, in which 187 female workers walked out in protest of sexual discrimination. This political dramedy starring Bob Hoskins (“Hook”), Sally Hawkins ( “Happy Go Lucky”), Miranda Richardson (“The Hangover”) and Rosamund Pike ( “An Education”) follows the lives of a group of car upholstery seamstresses led by unassuming wife and mother RITA.( Hawkins)
Unlike their male counterparts in the automaker’s gleaming new main facility, the women toil in a decrepit old 1920s plant with a leaky roof, pigeons flying overhead, and stifling sweatshop conditions in summer. Despite their highly specialized work, the women are classified as “unskilled labor” and paid a fraction of the men’s pay.
When sympathetic union rep ALBERT (Hoskins) encourages the women to bring their grievances to Ford management, Rita is coaxed into attending a meeting. Albert reveals that his own mother worked herself into an early grave under such conditions and he wants to change things in her memory.
Outraged by the lack of respect accorded her and shop steward CONNIE, Rita surprises herself by speaking out sharply, saying the women refuse to be ignored and will strike immediately if they are not given equal pay. The plant calls her bluff and the pigeon feathers fly!
These uneducated women go from being an annoyance to a possibly explosive situation for Ford. If these 187 cogs in the wheel set a precedent, they’ll have to grant women equal pay around the world. The carmakers insist the local union reps squelch the strike. But Rita and her band of plucky friends will not be squelched. For many, this is the only “power” they’ve felt in their entire lives.
Sadly, their glow of camaraderie is temporary as the supply of seat upholstery runs out, the entire Dagenham plant is closed and the women’s husbands are put out of work as well. Relationships are challenged, refrigerators are repossessed, lights are turned off and the press turns the story into national headlines.
Throughout the campaign, the women rely on their sense of humor, common sense and a stiff drink to stand together and face an increasingly belligerent community. When an upper-class mother (Pike) at Rita’s son’s middle school and wife of the plant’s upper echelon, encourages her to stand her ground, and she gets a supportive call from BARBARA CASTLE, The Secretary of State For Employment, (Richardson) Rita changes the rules of the game not only for factory workers but for women everywhere.
Directed by Nigel Cole (“Calendar Girls”) on location in Wales and England, the feel is authentic and gritty. He took the script, he says, “…because he loves working with women and prefers character pieces to boring movies with car crashes and guns.” Miranda, Richardson, also in attendance at the screening, says Cole “…was a warm, fuzzy director…” and that the entire production was fun from start to finish.
Cole revealed he got lucky when a washing machine factory closed just before the production start date in Pentrebach, Wales, and he was able to use it, and the real women who lost their jobs, as extras. Most of them had never seen a camera before and took to acting like headaches to cheap champagne. “Some of them were so good,” he reports,” I brought them to London and put them in every shot.”
What I enjoyed most was the performances, the texture of the locations and the reminders of the Carnaby Street era as the Dagenham girls are glued to the pop sights from London on the telly. Oh, the beehives, Twiggy eye makeup, and Mary Quant hot pants! These details may have been lost on the men in the audience, but every woman I noticed smiled in recognition of a fashion statement long gone but not forgotten.
The cast is stellar even though the Cockney accents are so thick at times, we could have used subtitles. And I particularly LOVED seeing Hill Street Blues’ Richard Schiff return to the big screen as the oily Ford rep and Rosamund Pike’s fierce Cambridge-educated woman who’s stifled by a husband who prefers her to keep her opinions to herself. She truly surprises in a role that is the complete opposite of the airhead she played in “An Education”.
It’s a feel-good film that in real life led to the introduction of an Equal Pay Act that became law in England in 1970. Now, if we could only get a similar law passed in the U.S.!
Rated R for language and brief nudity. Running time 113 minutes.