Nigel Cole—at least when he stays in Great Britain, where he’s clearly better off—appears to gravitate toward seemingly unassuming films with a crowd-pleaser vibe wrapped around a carefully balanced message. That’s what he does best, and that’s what he does with Made in Dagenham, a fictionalized account of the 1968 strike in Dagenham against the Ford Motor Company that resulted in legislation guaranteeing equal pay for women in the UK. Whether or not it really went down exactly as depicted in the film (which is unlikely), it’s hard to argue that the results aren’t both persuasive and entertaining. They’re also thoroughly British, which is perhaps why the film is in consideration in 14 categories for the BAFTA nominations, and why you’ve heard little or no buzz about it concerning Oscars.
Made in Dagenham wears its Britishness on its sleeve—and not just in its casting, tone and accents. Here we have a film in which fighting union leaders quote Karl Marx at each other and nobody goes into a hissy fit of socialism heebie-jeebies. It also wears its period-piece qualities in much the same manner, with its 1960s songs (nice to hear the Small Faces getting a workout), Biba fashions and its photographic look. The film’s muted-color palette resembles nothing so much as slightly faded home movies of the era. And, frankly, I think this is all to the good.
This is also how I feel about the subdued manner in which the film approaches its very obvious agenda. Yet this is the very thing that the movie’s detractors (who are in the minority) are most bothered by. They’re wanting the ham-handed in-your-face style of Martin Ritt. Instead, they’re getting a more human approach that brings the Big Questions down to a recognizable level. It puts faces on the people involved, clarifies their motives, and gets to the core of what drives them as they come to understand the significance of what’s going on. The women become not just accidental working-class heroes; they’re often unwilling participants—at least at first.
Is it a popular filmmaking approach? Certainly, but that doesn’t make it wrong, especially when it’s grounded in the performances we have here. There’s scarcely a miscast role, though it’s hard to deny that the Ford bad guys—especially the U.S. representative—aren’t exactly given much dimension. That doesn’t keep Sally Hawkins from making the ideal cinematic incarnation of strike leader Rita O’Grady, an unassuming woman who doesn’t even understand what the strike is actually about. Her portrayal of a woman coming to a state of political and self-realization is built from the ground up.
Similarly fine work comes from Bob Hoskins as the union man who urges her on. Miranda Richardson as Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity Barbara Castle turns what could have been little more than an extended cameo into a full performance. Perhaps best of all, though, is Rosamund Pike as an upper-class woman who puts what Rita is doing into a whole new perspective. Did it actually happen this way? Probably not, but it should have, and it certainly works as effective drama—and that’s really the film’s point, I think.
Made in Dagenham is not an especially ambitious film as far as filmmaking is concerned. It isn’t going to change the way you think about cinema. Its style is a fairly straightforward one, but it’s one where—if you pause to do so—you look at the choice of shots and their composition and realize, yes, that’s exactly the right choice. Consider the perfect choice of the long shot just prior to an obvious dramatic highpoint in the scene where Rita and her best friend Connie (Geraldine James) part company because they’ve reached Connie’s house. It’s not simply the perfect choice, it feels like the only choice. And while that’s not in itself exciting, it’s very satisfying. It’s a style that suits the material and serves the actors.
Made in Dagenham is part of the slow trickle of quality 2010 films that are making their way to our part of the world. These provide the only glimmer of hope for a good movie in the frozen tundra of January releases (unless a miracle occurs). In the case of Made in Dagenham, it’s not merely a glimmer, it’s a pleasantly warm glow—and it oughtn’t be overlooked. Rated R for language and brief sexuality.