A tale set in the turbulent 1960s, against the backdrop of consumer culture and concerned with, among other things, the struggle of women to be taken seriously in the workplace, Made in Dagenham is not Mad Men. But it was of Mad Men that I found myself thinking as I watched Nigel Cole's pleasant but forgettable fillm.
After three seasons of Mad Men, I decided it was little but a wallow in a lost paradise of men drinking at the office and having sex with the secretaries. We luxuriate in that incorrect era even as we know it will be swept away by the youngsters of the 1960s, a decade that is by now—after four decades of cud-chewing in movie montages and television specials—reduced to a half-dozen cultural moments.
But as memoirists have noted, the 1960s didn't seem like the '60s to the people who were living through it, except maybe for the turbulent year of 1968. A lot of things happened that year, including thousands of work stoppages in Great Britain, one of which is the subject of Made in Dagenham.
Dagenham is a suburb on the east side of London and at the time was home to a Ford automotive plant. Several thousand worked there, including, the film tells us, 187 women who were assigned the job of cutting and stitching the upholstery for the cars. Forced to work in oppressive conditions—it's so hot in their leaky building that they work in their underwear—they also suffer the indignity of being considered unskilled, and are paid as such.
A sympathetic union representative (Bob Hoskins) encourages them to air their grievances, and doughty little Rita O'Grady steps forward to be the representative—not so much because she passed any test of leadership but because she's played by the film's star, Sally Hawkins (or, as I now think of her, Sally 'Awkins). Despite being instructed to smile sweetly and make the meekest of requests, Rita can't keep her inner Norma Rae from emerging. She upsets first the male union bosses, then the Ford honchos in the United States, with her demands for equal pay for women. Along the way, her husband, also a working stiff at the factory, chafes at having to cook, clean house and mind the children while Mum is doing her union leadership thing.
Everything in this film is flat and on the nose. The men are predictably thickheaded, the union bosses predictably duplicitous, and Rita is surrounded by three gal pals in a constitution of the female quartet made imperishable by television sitcoms like Golden Girls and Sex and the City. There's the older, desexualized Bea Arthur character, the brassy, sexually avid Rue McClanahan/ Kim Cattrall character and the sweet and dopey Betty White character.
The film also includes two women who represent the upper classes: Miranda Richardson is the ruling Labour Party's secretary responsible for labor issues, while the wanly beautiful Rosamund Pike plays the wanly beautiful wife of the factory boss; despite her good breeding and education, she is stifled and belittled. Both of these more powerful women cheer on, in their own way, the determined women of Dagenham.
So the film turns a real labor struggle into a peppy but vapid exercise in girl power. I recently saw a far better labor film, one that featured a cadre of courageous, pistol-packing women on the ramparts: Barbara Kopple's classic 1976 coal mining documentary, Harlan County U.S.A. That's a labor film that takes its subject seriously. In Made in Dagenham, the cause—and its champions—may be righteous, but for drama to be resonant and comedy to be mirthful, the writing and characterizations must hold some element of wit, menace and genuine surprise. Made in Dagenham may tell a true story, but it feels as synthetic as something Made in Disney.