Alfred Hitchcock once said that to make a good film you need three things: a great script, a great script and a great script. Made in Dagenham has a terrific script that mercifully survives the ministrations of a director and a production designer who seem hellbent on hammering the story into a bland Play for Today aesthetic when it’s patently obvious that it needs to be sweeping and dramatic and big.
It’s difficult to fathom what director Nigel Cole – the shot-caller behind Calendar Girls – was playing at. He had a literate but authentically working class script by William Ivory, a humdinger of a true story to work from, and a dream cast in Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Andrea Riseborough, Miranda Richardson, Kenneth Cranham, Rosamund Pike, Geraldine James, Jaime Winstone, John Sessions and Roger Lloyd Pack.
Based on the 1968 strike by the 187 female workers at Ford’s Dagenham plant, who fought their way through prejudice and big business bullying to secure a victory that facilitated the Equal Pay Act in 1970, the issues raised by Made in Dagenham remain pertinent forty years down the line. “It’s not a privilege, it’s a right,” Rita (Hawkins) asserts at one point when her husband Eddie (Daniel Mays) suggests that she ought to be thankful that he takes responsibility for their kids and doesn’t knock her about. His is an almost casual prejudice that is still depressingly prevalent. Trawl through enough comment threads or memes on the internet and you’ll see that the battle against misogyny is still being fought. Or take Rita and her colleagues’ struggle for equal pay – the current economic climate of zero hour contracts and benefit claimants being corralled into providing unpaid labour puts in perspective the continuing exploitation by management of a grass-roots workforce. The more things change, etc etc.
Ivory’s script is instinctively attuned to these implications, but he doesn’t tub-thump or flag-wave. His characters are recognisably and definably regular people. Rita almost accidentally assumes the mantle of leader. There’s no existing political impetus to her actions. She’s never just a mouthpiece. Her unexpected friendship with middle-class trophy wife Lisa (Pike) proves the point: it’s not class, economics or social structures that define them, it’s their determination not to live in the shadows of patriarchal objectification.
Which is not to say that all men are bastards and the narrative is a simple "us and them" delineation between workers and management, men and women. Rita’s mentor is bashful shop steward Albert (Hoskins); her husband is oafish but good-natured and has the character to apologise and support her to the hilt when he realises how wrong he’s been in his attitudes. Plus, there’s a scene where the female workers mercilessly tease a young lad sent to deliver a message to their department – a reminder that wolf-whistles and pinched arses can be doled out by members of either gender.
Ivory is a smart writer: smart enough to know that his story is about characters and the way they interact as individuals. In many hands, the material would have boiled down to a union vs management melodrama. Made in Dagenham shows management pressured and bullied by each successive level of management; the union as rife with procrastinators and jobsworths as any other element of the company; and, at the highest’s tier of the film’s narrative, Harold Wilson’s Labour government pulled between the party-defining idealism of trades union support and the economic necessity of retaining American investment in Britain.
As I said, material that demands to be sweeping and wide-ranging, which is why it’s a travesty that Cole stages scene after scene with the flat, visually boring imprint of a tea-time soap opera. An opening scene of workers bicycling into the plant en masse recalls the opening credits of Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, but nothing in Cole’s direction or John de Borman’s cinematography capture the grimy workhouse conditions of factory life as evocatively as that movie. The approach is determinedly small-scale throughout and it would have been the coup de grace to a lesser script. Andrew McAlpine’s production design fares no better: the period recreation seldom achieves authenticity and anachronisms abound. (In the interests of fairness, though, Riseborough rocks a beehive hairdo.)
Worse, Cole doesn’t seem able to rein in his actors. Hawkins overdoes the wobbling lower lip, Pike pretty much carries over her performance from ‘An Education’, Mays mopes and mangles his vowels in the worst approximation of a London accent since Dick Van Dyke went chimney-sweeping, and Sessions and Richardson – as Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle respectively – seem to have wandered in from Yes, Prime Minister: The Labour Years. Mercifully, everyone else takes charge of their own performances. Hoskins is as likeable and understated as he’s been in ages, Cranham suggests years of low-level politicking purely in the way he leans forward, and Riseborough, Winstone and James bring Rita’s co-workers to life in a burst of irrepressible blue-collar energy.
Made in Dagenham deserved a powerhouse director; the results are compromised, but there’s enough that shines like a diamond in a dunghill to make it worth your attention.