Friday, 15 October 2010

Made in Dagenham

The poster for Made In Dagenham is almost insufferably twee: Happy Go Lucky's Sally Hawkins in perky 60s bob and get up, complete with even perkier smile. It's almost a come hither invite to a glib and trite celebration of British cinema at its worst: colourful yet superficial and vacuous. It's therefore a delight to report that Made In Dagenham is made of far tougher, more substantial stuff. Like the women whose real life 1968 strike it dramatises, Dagenham contains hidden depths.

Said women were sewing machinists at the Ford Plant in Dagenham. Labouring under noisy, sweltering conditions, the strike kicked off on June 7th when they discovered their jobs were graded in the Category B of less skilled production. Rebelling against a frankly revolting culture of suited, skeletal male vultures, who bore the in-vogue 60s attitude that women be paid less than men regardless of skill, the women walked out en-mass, causing a ripple effect that halted all car production, eventually dragging then Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity Barbara Castle into the mix.

It was a strike that was to have far-reaching ramifications, ultimately resulting in the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1970. It's therefore not only a fascinating story but clearly a neglected slice of important social history, brimming with cinematic potential. Thank heavens then that director Nigel Cole has added some spice to his fluffy Calendar Girls souffle, bolstering proceedings with just enough dramatic licence but more importantly a firm sense of working class period grit. First and foremost, the marvellous cast are clearly on-board in their astute perception of the story's significance, eking out vibrant character nuances amid a drab, dreary world of smoky, chauvinistic board rooms and grim council housing. There's also a wonderfully astute eye not only for gender politics but for multiple character arcs that arise organically out of the narrative like the cries for equality did out of the din of the plant itself.

Beginning with sly, subtle observations as the women break out of their overhauls in the workplace en-mass, temporarily gaining the edge over their male counterparts, scriber Billy Ivory's lightly fictionalised account gathers apace when Sally Hawkins as Rita O'Grady (distilling her chipper Happy Go Lucky persona into something more plausible and multi-faceted) unexpectedly finds herself heading up the strike herself. She's a likeable, smart entryway to an earlier, boorish era; when she comes face to face with Kenneth Cranham's revolting union official and Rupert Graves' slimy head honcho, it doesn't take long for audiences to get on side with her.

The filmmakers sensibly also put the strike in a wider context, so while there may be factual airbrushing, the gritty emotional realism couldn't be more honest, focusing especially on the effect the strike had on the women's families. Throughout, a tremendously impressive tapestry takes shape, with standout performances coming from Daniel Mays as Hawkins' husband; Geraldine James as her troubled co-worker; Bob Hoskins as the only man on the women's' side; Rosamund Pike who, despite being the other side of the class divide, rallies to their cause; and Miranda Richardson, whose harrumphing Miranda Richardson performance as Barbara Castle may belong to a Rory Bremner sketch, but is tremendously engaging nonetheless.

But what impresses most is the sense of integrity and loyalty to the story itself. In an era of tabloid tittle tattle and casual sexism, it's a wonderfully enervating, positive experience, that, amazingly, sticks to archetypes without pandering to unpleasant stereotypes. Like the fabled strikers, the success of Made In Dagenham is borne out in a lot of hard work and a big heart.

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