Some of the best heroes are the ones who never intended to be heroic. Take Rita O’Grady. She was a housewife who worked at the Ford manufacturing plant in Dagenham in Britain. She and her fellow women, 187 total, decided to make a stand against the corporation. All they wanted at first was to be considered semi-skilled employees — since they stitched all their work by hand. Then, through the machinations of a gnomish supervisor, the battle became the forefront for the establishment of equal pay. Rita O’Grady wasn’t some iron-jawed angel, she wasn’t a battle ax brunhilde waving her burning bra in the air. She simply wanted to be treated fairly. Made in Dagenham tells this important story without trying to turn O’Grady into a hero. She’s a frightened little mouse of a woman, who makes a fierce stand and won’t back down when her co-workers turn on her, when her friends turn on her, when her family turns. Because she knows she’s right, and that’s it’s her right to have equal pay. Despite taking melodramatic bends and a moderate amount of speechifying, the movie soars on delightful humor and the rapturous performances of the cast, particularly Sally Hawkins and Bob Hoskins. You know how it turns out, because it’s based on a true story, and history has already been written, but you still can’t help but take joy in watching the film unfold and watching these women win.
In Britain in 1968, the Ford company was pretty much keeping the economy afloat by supplying many jobs with factories all across the country. The company had restructured their pay grades, and the 187 women of the Dagenham plant had been classified as unskilled labor and took a pay cut. These women came into work and sat in a sweltering shop to machine stitch the seat covers for all of the cars. They put in a complaint through their shop steward, Albert Passingham (Bob Hoskins), to get the issue changed. They brought their spokeswoman, Connie (Geraldine James), and Albert, and their union rep, and then they wanted one more person to go in with an advantage in personnel, and so they chose Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins). Rita was a soft-spoken and kind of meek -seeming woman whose, like most of the women at Ford, has a husband on the assembly line. Rita went into the meeting, where their union rep told her to keep quiet and let the men do the talking and just nod when he did. But when Ford was going to put them off, Rita stepped up. She pulled out material from her purse and told them that at the very least they were semi-skilled laborers, and that they had to take an exam to get on the floor. They were going to go on an immediate walkout and strike for 24 hours if their grievances weren’t met. And so, they did.
And this was just the beginning. When the Ford company reprimanded them, they walked out. And they stayed out of work. Under the suggestions of Albert, Rita demanded equal pay. The unions fought her. Then when the shop had to halt work because they ran out of the seat covers, the workers began to grumble. Even her kind hearted goof of a husband Eddie (Daniel Mays) got surly with her. This was a huge sweeping move. If Ford were to give equal pay to women, then the entire industry, and the entire economy of the world would pretty much have to follow suit. But that’s not why Rita was fighting. She wanted equal pay because it was their right as people. She didn’t give a damn about the overarching ramifications of her actions. She was in the fight because she and her friends deserved it. She took her fight against the unions who tried to backdoor them. She took her fight against the Ford corporation. She even took her fight to the Secretary of State Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson).
Nigel Cole does a great job of letting the story tell itself, working well with William Ivory’s excellent script. There are plenty of peaks and valleys, the standard kind of happy-sad-happy-sad plotting you’d expect with this kind of film. In less able hands, this easily could have ended up on the wrong side of overdramatic or worse Lifetime material. It’s a bit of Norma Rae, a bit of A League of Their Own, with the same kind of giddy humor and pathos that makes those films so charming. It’s the performances that make this film, and every act hits their mark like a dead-eye: Hoskins, Richardson, Mays, as well as Rosamund Pike and Richard Schiff playing a spectacular bastard. It’s the kind of acting that we’ve come to expect from British film, the period piece that has an outstanding cast from butler to duke — only instead of Victorian dresses we’ve got hot pants and bouffant hairdos. Sally Hawkins will definitely get nominated for this performance, because you simply can’t resist her. If we liked the other Sally, really really liked her, for her Norma Rae, Hawkins’ Rita hits all the notes perfectly. She vibrates in every scene with nervous energy and barely restrained indignant outrage. She’s a fighter, but she’s not some kind of Joan of Arc. With that massive all gum smile and her little squinty eyes, she’s like Mrs. Frisby from The Secret of N.I.M.H.
It’s always nice to see a director who’s willing to let his cast shine. This cast is no exception. It’s a war of the sexes, a revolution fought by machinists on bicycles, but it’s a war just the same. And it’s a war of attrition, where Rita O’Grady and her ladies stand firm and don’t let The Man get them down. While it’s certainly not a perfect movie — there are several moments that drag a bit and even the soundtrack swings with stings letting you know whether to be happy or sad — it’s so damn sweet-natured. It’s the kind of movie that you’ll watch and feel contented afterwards. This time of year is when they cram every sad-bastard tale they can find down your throats, so it’s nice to have a charming alternative.