Set in 1968, Made in Dagenham stars Sally Hawkins as Rita O’Grady, a married mother of two who works as a machinist for Ford. After successfully rallying the female workforce and staging a walkout over Ford’s decision to classify them as “unskilled labour” despite evidence to the contrary, she eventually leads the women on a march on Whitehall to demand equal pay, which garners the support of the fiery Secretary of State, Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson).
But strike action has its consequences and the pressure soon starts to take its toll, particularly when Ford begins to lay off its male workforce and when a high-ranking executive arrives from the States with orders to break the strike by any means necessary.
Sally Hawkins is excellent as Rita, a mild mannered woman who eventually finds her voice, a woman realising that she is, in the immortal words of Peter Finch, “Mad as hell and not going to take it anymore”, that things don’t have to be the way they are because that’s the way they’ve always been. Her gradual transformation from resigned housewife to tenacious thorn in the system’s side is convincing and moving.
She’s admirably supported by an excellent ensemble cast, particularly Bob Hoskins as a mild mannered Union rep and Miranda Richardson as the trenchant Barbara Castle (although it’s hard not to think of Queenie screaming at Blackadder when she becomes particularly riled).
Rosamund Pike also puts in a winning performance as Lisa, a Cambridge graduate now relegated to the status of trophy wife to a Ford executive and who becomes an unlikely ally for Rita. Jamie Winstone as the model-obsessed Sandra and Andrea Riseborough as good-time girl Brenda are also great fun to watch.
It’s hard not to get carried away on the film’s exuberant and genuinely uplifting message. The fight for equal pay is a subject which rightly deserves attention and you’ll very quickly find yourself rooting for the girls, even when the 60s clichés are ladled on a little bit heavily (Matt King, while always welcome, jars slightly as a campy David Bailey-esque photographer).
There is a tendency for the film to meander with too many subplots, although one involving Geraldine James and her depressed husband played by Roger Lloyd Pack (that’s Trigger to most of us) has some substantial emotional punch. In a way this is necessary to prevent the film from becoming depressing but sometimes it feels that the politics driving the film are sidelined in favour of kitchen sink drama.
Despite this, Made In Dagenham is a extremely entertaining and uplifting comedy drama that is by turns funny, moving and inspirational and captures an important moment for women’s rights.