Will Made in Dagenham finally win Sally Hawkins the Oscar nod denied her two years ago for Happy-Go-Lucky? Her far more conventional turn as an unlikely labor leader in Nigel Cole’s film is convincing enough; it’s the rest of the movie that isn’t. Chronicling the 1968 strike staged by the 187 women workers at Europe’s largest auto plant, the Ford factory in suburban London, the film is an unholy amalgam of lurching plotting, superfluous subplots, and endless inspirational speeches, all of which say exactly the same thing. When the female workers in the plant’s textile division find their status (and corresponding pay) downgraded to “unskilled,” union representative Albert (Bob Hoskins) proposes “industrial action.” Tagging along to the negotiating table as an extra body, heretofore apolitical worker Rita O’Grady (Hawkins) ignores her directives to keep quiet and, instantly transforming herself into a silver-tongued labor leader, launches into a harangue about equal pay for women, all to the consternation of the compromise-minded union reps.
It will be the first of many such speeches throughout the film delivered not only by Rita, but by Albert, who tearfully reminisces about his single mother raising him on unequal pay, and by Rita’s two doubles, the sympathetic English secretary of state and self-described “fiery redhead” Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), and Lisa (Rosamund Pike), the wife of Ford’s head of industrial relations, a highly educated woman treated as little more than a domestic servant by her husband. The problem with all this easily inspirational oratory is just that: it’s too easy. Rather than allow these speeches to gain their effectiveness by building out of narrative or character, they rely for effect on the historical distance of 40-plus years which has turned the question of equal pay for women from a controversial topic to a no-brainer for even the most conservative-minded viewer. With the audience’s retrospective certainty that it’s on the right side of history, the viewer is freed to cheer these equal-pay warriors, the four-decade lapse allowing him or her a superior positioning in relation to the film’s cardboard villains.
To be sure, all is not wine and roses for our plucky heroine, but by the time the difficulties set in, she’s already transformed herself into an unflappable saint so there’s no need to worry about her waffling. Singlehandedly turning the strike from a one-day affair designed to win a few concessions into an ongoing work stoppage that she vows to continue until all female workers are paid the same as their masculine counterparts, Rita encounters her share of obstacles. When the plant is forced to shut down, her male co-workers, her husband included, blame her for putting them on the dole. Similarly, she has to deal with the lack of support within her own union (Albert excepted), her own dwindling finances, and, along with the film’s other women, constant condescension at the hands of nearly every one of the film’s men.
It all makes for a dispiritingly bloodless drama, which is likely why screenwriter William Ivory stuffs the movie with as many parallel narratives as he can think up. But too many subplots, the most ridiculous of which involves a factory worker dealing with a shell-shocked husband shot down in WWII, can’t distract from the weakness of the main one. Pitting a saintly labor leader versus a villainous management may be pretty close to the historical truth, but when played for heavily educed tear-jerking melodrama, it makes for some pretty questionable cinema. By the time Rita mounts the podium (in a lame bit of symbolism, rejecting the helping hand of an opportunistic male union leader, because women can do things by themselves!) and addresses the local in allegedly soul-stirring words, the redundancy of the speech finally proves exhausting. If there’s any subject for a feel-good film that’s actually worth feeling good about, it’s a successful labor strike, but Cole’s tiresome effort is likely to leave all but the most sentimental viewers feeling awfully rotten.