A moderately entertaining but cliché-ridden dramedy about striking women autoworkers, Made in Dagenham (2010) has its heart in the right place but that's offset by a highly predictable screenplay and artificial approach. The film is based on the compelling true story of 187 sewing machinists at a Ford Motor plant whose 1968 walkout eventually led to Britain's Equal Pay Act of 1970. Archival news footage and new interviews with the real strikers are run over the end titles, but this only had me wishing this story had been told in documentary form instead.
Sony's region "A" Blu-ray is up to contemporary standards, with the usual assortment of extra features. My PlayStation 3 required a firmware update for the up-to-the-minute audio specs, which I was able to upload directly from the disc itself.
At Ford's Dagenham plant, women sew car seat covers in sweatshop like conditions, stripping to their bras and girdles because of the heat. They meet with their gentle union rep, Albert (Bob Hoskins), who is delighted when the workers unanimously approve a one-day walkout after Ford declares them "unskilled" laborers - at pay significantly lower than men doing comparable work. Besides shop steward Connie (Geraldine James), Albert pushes married mother-of-two Rita O'Grady (Sally Hawkins, here looking like Rita Tushingham without the nose) to join them and union middle manager Monty Taylor (Kenneth Cranham) in their negotiations with Ford.
Monty, however, is both condescending toward the women and ready to sell them out as leverage against more pressing demands for his male constituents. Outraged at this, Rita speaks up and, representing the women's real interests, announces that the machinists will be walking off the job effective immediately.
Although some of Made in Dagenham's running time is devoted to workers vs. management politicking and equal rights issues, the core of the film is the overly familiar story of a repressed, under-educated housewife discovering (in this case) assertive leadership skills she didn't know she had in her. The film's pro-women, pro-union theme - issues very much on the minds of Americans in 2011 - is undermined by a screenplay that's at least equally focused on one woman's personal awakening.
There are no surprises at all. How many times have you seen this scene? As Rita takes charge, her husband (Daniel Mays) becomes increasingly resentful, especially as he's completely incompetent doing things like cooking and cleaning, burning food and filling the kitchen with black smoke. Just once I'd like to see a film where the husband turns out to be a better homemaker than the wife. Naturally, he comes around after seeing Rita deliver an inspiring speech to her male-dominated union.
The clichés are everywhere: the women whose loyalties wobble because of the strike's financial strain, the turncoat creating endless obstacles for the women to overcome. Though apparently an entirely British production, mostly from the BBC's film division, the picture has a Hollywood glossiness that takes away rather than adds to its effectiveness, such as the not-very-good use of '60s pop tunes ("Green Tambourine," etc.).
The beehive hairdos and sixties fashions, accentuated by the bright, colorful cinematography, also work against the movie's believability. The women in the archival footage at the end look nothing like the women in Made in Dagenham*; the real workers are generally older (40-60 vs. mostly 20s and 30s in the movie) and dress in drabber, more practical work clothes. If it were the filmmakers' intent to really capture the period, it probably would have been wiser to desaturate the color and reign in the colorful costumes rather than the other way around.
That said, the picture has its moments, though none particularly focused on the main character. As Albert, Bob Hoskins is excellent, and he delivers a beautiful monologue explaining his motivations and support of the girls. A subplot involving a Rita's relationship with a wealthy woman (Die Another Day's Rosamund Pike), a highly educated university graduate whose ambitions are stifled by a conservative husband likewise pays off near the end. Oddly, these little character vignettes are far more effective than anything involving Rita. Her motives and her character generally remain frustratingly sketchy, lost in that sea of character clichés.
Video & Audio
Shot on 35mm and film in 2.35:1 'scope, Made in Dagenham looks bright and cheery throughout, with some especially effective CGI matte-type shots coming off well in high-def. The lossless English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is likewise up to contemporary standards, with English, English SDH, and Spanish subtitles options also included. As stated above, the disc is region "A" encoded. The feature presentation is preceded by a long ad for Blu-ray 3-D and way too many trailers, all in high-def.
As a new movie, Made in Dagenham is accompanied by the usual, expected extra features: an audio commentary with director Nigel Cole, a trailer (in high-def), deleted scenes, outtakes, and a making-of featurette (not in high-def). Not bad, but standard stuff.
Clichéd but pleasant, Made in Dagenham should have been something more than it is, but it tells an interesting, essentially true story and comes to life here and there. Rent It.
* Sergei Hasenecz adds, "There's certainly precedent for this. Whatever you may think of the similarly-themed Norma Rae, compare cute li'l Sally Field with the real Norma Rae, Crystal Lee Sutton. Even if you had no idea who Sally Field was, in a side-by-side photo comparison you could pick out who was the movie star and who had been working for (What Makes America Great, Part One) $2.65 an hour. (What Makes America Great, Part Two) Sutton died of brain cancer in 2009, while battling with her insurance company which had delayed treatment."
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.