What's this? An ode to feminism that doesn't including the anthemic wail of "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves" by Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin? Thanks to a leap back in time, "Made in Dagenham" avoids such cloying nonsense, depicting a war cry for equality with a melodramatic, but engrossing screenplay that portions much of the emotional texture to the actresses involved, led by star Sally Hawkins, who's note-perfect as the leader of an unexpected army.
In Dagenham, England, a Ford Motor Company manufacturing plant essentially employed the town, with the majority of the workforce comprised of men used to creature comforts. Stuck in a hot warehouse, sweating away while operating sewing machines are the female employees, growing increasingly restless with their low wages and hellish work environment. While union reps (including Kenneth Cranham) attempt to downplay the unrest, Rita O'Grady (Sally Hawkins) has no patience for lip service, inadvertently becoming the voice of a strike that would come to shut down the plant entirely, bringing great stress to the community and Ford itself. Striving for equal pay, Rita and the Dagenham women take their fight to the press, even reaching the halls of government, capturing the support of Secretary of State Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson).
"Made in Dagenham" comes from the director of "Saving Grace" and "Calendar Girls," which might be the best indication of the viewing experience that lies ahead. Dealing with historical happenings in the late 1960s, filmmaker Nigel Cole seeks a way to lighten up potentially dreary events through the charisma of his cast and the use of pop hits from the era, adding a little fizz to the brew before the chilling realities of life on the picket line settle in. It's a workmanlike directorial job, but the intended effect is there, with Cole supplying feel-good fringes to a vital tale of equality.
The cast truly sells the impact of the film, with Hawkins out front and center as the leader of the pack. A meek seamstress with more than enough duties at home keeping her busy, Rita comes to bloom in the face of corporate indifference and gender discrimination, using her surprising pluck to voice honest concerns, rattling the suits with her demands. It's a splendid performance that feels out every step of the character arc, allowing Hawkins to command the screen with her expressions of frustration and, when the fight carries on far longer than she imagined, guilt. The cast also includes superb turns from Bob Hoskins (as Rita's supportive boss), Rosamund Pike (a stifled woman enlivened by news of the strike), and Richard Schiff (effortlessly menacing as a Ford executive), but Hawkins is integral, carrying the weight of the film with a beautiful vulnerability, tempering the sisterhood boogie with a needed read of bruised conscience.
The anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation suffers from a decided lack of color, with hues feeling lifeless, pulling the energy out of the period costuming and softening locations. Skintones also disappoint, lacking natural pinkness. Black levels are relatively strong, allowing for visual information during low-light sequences. It's not an unpleasant viewing experience, but it lacks a certain screen spark that seems inherent to the feel-good ambiance of the picture.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix offers a welcome blend of soundtrack cuts and active verbal movement, with a hearty display of life from the group encounters, feeling circular instead of directly frontal. Surrounds are engaged as well, providing a pleasing echo for factory moments, while directional activity picks up for strike efforts and various instances of industrial atmospherics. Scoring is supportive, yet tame, while soundtrack movements are allowed a slightly larger presence.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are offered.
The feature-length audio commentary from director Nigel Cole reveals a touch of ego as the filmmaker chats up his efforts to bring "Dagenham" to life. Or perhaps it's all dry Brit wit. Either way, the conversation is a satisfactory exploration of the production, with Cole sticking to the historical perspective of the film and his pressures to keep the picture under budget. For goodness sake, the man openly laments his use of expensive rain machines! Cole is a bit scattered at times, ragingly focused others, but he seems to have a proper handle on the picture, communicating the backstage goods with ease, while adding his own unnerving jokes and boasts along the way.
"Making Of" (13:22) is a standard promotional featurette, blending interviews with cast and crew with plenty of film clips, intended to create an excitement about the story and its feminist significance. The passions are palpable, but the raw feel of filmmaking is missing here, with limited BTS footage to enjoy.
"Deleted Scenes" (7:38) are far from crucial slabs of subplot, but merely fragments of character, displaying Rita's worry and growing consciousness of the world. However, it's interesting to see such small trims and how they help to shape the film's characterizations.
"Outtakes" (2:19) is an odd collection of mix-em-ups, most centered on giggle fits from the animated cast.
And a Theatrical Trailer is included.
"Made in Dagenham" has a few overly hysterical melodramatic diversions, including a brief detour into suicide that threatens to derail the entire film. When focused on the intimacy of the strike and its spirited participants, the picture nails a few magnificent scenes of hesitation and fortitude, a gripping complexity that services the needs of the film and respects the amazing true-life story that inspired it.
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