By Myriam Ghattas
Revolution…revolution! “Made in Dagenham” (2010) puts the sassy in strike, one that yielded revolutionary results in England in 1968 and had repercussions all over the world thereafter.
Sporting a motto of “We Want Sex Equality” around their town before expanding to neighboring cities, 187 women machinists from the Dagenham Ford car factory in the east of London made history when they changed the working conditions of their gender by going on strike to demand equal treatment to men with regards to pay rate, overtime and holidays. Thanks to their efforts, the Equal Pay Act was enacted in England in 1970.
Nigel Cole (“Calendar Girls”) directs this dramatization of an important episode in the history of women’s fight for their rights. He manages to infuse the heavy subject of gender discrimination with lightheartedness, humor and thoughtfulness. The film, though about women, is not feminist in its approach in the sense that it does not attempt to portray the men as merely sexist and one-dimensional egocentrics but rather as the companions of the women whose story is being told.
The movie is character-driven with many different personalities shining through it. The women abound, each with their own individual stories and problems, with hopes and failings, yet all united against the unfair treatment they receive courtesy of centuries-old inherited and unchallenged biases. The men range from those who cannot begin to comprehend what the fuss is all about, to those who support the women’s cause enthusiastically, and finally to those who, like Eddie O’Grady (Daniel Mays) — the women’s leader’s husband — are works in progress.
Sally Hawkins of “Happy-Go-Lucky” stars as Rita O’Grady, the woman who overnight finds herself becoming the leader and icon of the women’s revolution and shoulders the responsibility with grace and bravery. Hawkins plays her part beautifully, bringing to the strong character her usual frailty and charm, yielding a deeply authentic persona.
Miranda Richardson brings as much charisma and oomph to her Secretary of State character Barbara Castle as she did to her rendition of the maddening Rita Skeeter in the Harry Potter movies.
Albert Passingham, played by an irresistible Bob Hoskins, is the union representative who vehemently sides with the women and actively supports their cause by alerting them to possible loopholes in the tricky offers made to them by their employer Ford to resolve the situation.
Not surprisingly, we sense from the get-go that this is no ordinary film about an intriguing episode in history. The director’s inspiration was far more personal. “I did feel very close to Bob Hoskins’ character…because, like he says in the film, I was very inspired by my mother who taught me a great lesson in life,” says Cole, “…She was beautiful and bored and ignored, and she got herself an education and became a doctor of psychology when I was small and kind of empowered herself. …I think that’s part of the reason why I make films about women was I saw my mother go from bored housewife to engaged and fulfilled woman.”
Lest the movie be taken less seriously than it deserves, it is important to remember that the Dagenham women’s strike was not an easy one to sustain. Against mounting pressure from work, families, neighbors and friends being affected by the stalled production line in the factory, the women “were having to hold their own and having to think very fast in the moment,” recalls Hawkins, who spent some time getting to know a few of the real-life Dagenham women behind the strike.
They had to understand and counter all the sugarcoated and misleading propositions made to them by politicians, company and union representatives and they did so unpretentiously and wholeheartedly.
In an interview, Cole dwells on a disheartening symptom of society’s continued failings, which is the suspiciously low incidence of publicized and recognized achievements by women that actually make the news let alone our history books. The filmmaker, having grown up a mere five miles away from where the Dagenham factory was, decries, “This story is not well known in Britain…I didn’t know this story at all. And it’s been forgotten. And I think it’s been forgotten because women’s stories often are forgotten because men write history and they leave these bits out about women.
“Also I think these women, after they had won their great victory, they went back to work. They went back to their families and to their jobs and they carried on with their ordinary lives. And they didn’t write books and they didn’t make TV documentaries and it took 40 years for their story to be told.”
William Ivory pens this would-be difficult script with great subtlety while avoiding in good spirit the melodramatic draw. The ensemble cast delivers a great performance that testifies to Cole’s attention to every bit of detail. John de Borman’s (“An Education” and “The Full Monty”) visceral cinematography embraces the colorful art direction to complete this moving homage in great style.
“Made in Dagenham” is exuberant, touching, fashionable, invigorating and simply absolutely delightful to watch. Its message is uplifting, positive and life-affirming. We are reminded once again that with compassion and persistence comes great success. In those moments of solidarity humanity is able to leap forward and accomplish its greatest achievements.
It is only fitting that the ladies who were the source of inspiration of “Made in Dagenham” be the ones to conclude this reflection. Gwen Davis and Vera Sime say, “You’ve got to keep fighting…but you’ve got to keep together, you’ve got to stand together to do it.”
“Made in Dagenham” is screening as part of the Panorama for European Film on Nov. 26 at Stars cinema and Nov. 28 at Galaxy cinema. For full information, visit http://www.misrinternationalfilms.com/inner.aspx?SID=22&LangID=1