Its producers claimed inspiration from resistance to injustice, but this film’s sentimental spin is fundamentally flawed.
Flattering to Deceive. Film review – Tom Jennings
This film has been touted as the latest international Brit crossover honouring ordinary people’s lives. Directed by Nigel Cole – who previously made Calendar Girls (about the Yorkshire Women’s Institute charity pin-up project) – the commercial pitch flaunts a legacy of Ealing and Carry On comedies and recent social-realist recuperations like The Full Monty. Celebrating the 1968 strike by sewing machinists enraged at being reclassified ‘unskilled’, which shut down Ford’s Essex car plant and eventually resulted in landmark legislation, Made In Dagenham certainly captures the fractious camaraderie and determination of working-class women facing concerted public and private pressure and patronisation from bosses, politicians, union bureaucrats, the media and their own menfolk. Meticulous visual design and authentic settings complement the overly bright and breezy filming of predictably sexed-up characters, but an agile script ably combining gallows and gutter humour and genuine warmth and respect works courtesy of excellent acting – especially by Sally Hawkins as initially reluctant spokeswoman ‘Rita O’Grady’ gradually growing in confidence leading her workmates towards winning the day. Sadly, however, this character actually condenses down several of the prime movers into a single, rather two-dimensional heroic leader – a predictable enough Hollywood cretinisation which, at a stroke, obliterates the friction of rough interpersonal edges which provides the real difficult fertility of collective strength. But despite this craven populism, interesting gestures also contextualise developments in the postwar political and social background where the social-democratic settlement of full employment and welfare depended on trade union power tenuously taming grassroots militancy. Nonetheless clashes with corporate and political establishments escalated in the ‘Swinging Sixties’ whose consumer culture had yet to trickle down meaningfully to the lower-classes – but unfortunately most of the relevant narrative strands are decisively botched here. We don’t sense the everyday intelligent combativeness among contemporary factory workers beyond stereotypes of striking ‘at the drop of a hat’, and the creepy collaborationism and manipulative agendas of union, company and government functionaries are similarly caricatured. The wider impact of Women’s Lib likewise translates into ludicrous episodes like the boss’s wife whispering moral solidarity while lending Rita her Biba frock – with other vexed questions of family conflict and gender roles wish-fulfilled away or magnified into melodramatic excess. Still, labour disputes are rarely portrayed favourably at the pictures – let alone with female protagonists acting on their own account who are, moreover, successful.
But actually, of course, these strikers effectively lost – fobbed off with a marginal wage rise (semi-skilled regrading waited until 1984, after a longer strike) and the liberal sop of ‘rights’ to equal pay which, in practice, is currently even further away while jobs are generally ‘re-evaluated’ downwards into part-time precarity. Given such rich material and the benefit of substantial hindsight, crowd-pleasing populism could surely have been accomplished without so thoroughly falsifying the significance of these events at the time and since. Sadly the film-makers had neither the requisite wit nor will. Instead – milking the overweening ‘uplifting’ imperative – not only are our brave heroines portrayed as unequivocally victorious, but sick-making end-credits then claim that the world’s therefore a better place, with Ford thereafter transformed into a model of global ‘best practice’! Made in Dagenham’s nostalgic sentimentality and inspirational entertainment thus seem firmly predicated upon failing to learn from history.
Made in Dagenham is on general release.
Edited review first published in Freedom, Vol. 71, No. 23, December 2010.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: