Whether it’s the unlikely ballplayer being given the chance to play and scoring the game-winning shot or ragtag, inner city kids defying the odds and acing calculus tests, true stories of overcoming personal adversity are always satisfying to some degree. These films enable the hope in viewers’ minds that they too will be able to surmount their own obstacles in life. Made in Dagenham is a story about the strength of women’s willpower, their limitless energy and their amazing resiliency. While it’s cathartic to watch them, however, there’s very little suspense or intrigue to keep viewers riveted until the inevitable conclusion.
In the 1960’s the Ford Motor Company employed the women of Dagenham to sew the upholstery of all of Ford’s vehicles. Unfortunately, they were paid only a fraction of what men who were performing equally skilled work were getting paid. Albert (Bob Hoskins), who is the women’s sympathetic union representative, urges them to confront Ford management about the situation. The women agree, sending the reluctant Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) as one of the employee envoys to the meeting. Rita surprises herself and everyone at the table when she speaks up to counter management’s cursory handling of the women’s grievances. With Albert’s encouragement and her own sense of duty, Rita finds herself caught in a whirlwind of constant media, an impossible balancing act between work and family and the prospect of making history.
Made in Dagenham is pretty straightforward and exactly what most viewers are going to expect from the story. The women want change; their initial attempts to affect change are sloppy; the women become more organized and galvanized until their demands can no longer be ignored. Most audiences will guess what happens in the end. Most of the obstacles that crop up in the film are also predictable: male resentment, management shenanigans and strife at home. These time-worn conventions, however, are handled well and shouldn’t be considered faults of the film, but rather logistical necessities. There is one moment that will surprise, which is when Rita’s husband Eddie (Danny Mays) explains to her why he’s such a good man by listing all of the things he goes out of his way to do. Rita points out to him that all of his benefits should be a given and not some kind of perk she’s lucky to have. It’s a stunning, unexpected moment and it perfectly encapsulates her struggle.
While Made in Dagenham touches the basic humanity in every viewer that wants to see the injustices of the past righted, the real reason audiences will enjoy this film is the strong acting. Sally Hawkins is fantastic here. It’s difficult not to be affected by her performance when her emotions shake her voice when she speaks. Her respective scenes are varied enough to allow Hawkins to show off her vast range and there are moments that she steps out of the film and into the real world. The supporting cast also does a wonderful job giving Hawkins’ performance context. Bob Hoskins seems perfectly suited playing the adorable Albert as he bashfully makes his way through the machine shop full of half-naked women, trying to avert his eyes. The women, as a group, will draw hapless smiles across viewers’ faces with their natural acting and familiar, yet sometimes surprisingly foreign behavior.
Given the constraints of telling a story based on true-events and, therefore, surrendering the suspense of not knowing what happens in the end, Made in Dagenham is still remarkably well-put together. The excellent cast, good writing and authentic look and feel will unquestioningly transport audiences to another time and place. While it doesn’t have the gripping set pieces that normally stick out in audiences’ minds after the credits roll, the work as a whole is a fine example of excellent cinema and should definitely be watched at least once.