What working women want, according to Rita O’Grady, the indefatigable Norma Rae of Nigel Cole’s entertaining new film, is simple: “Rights, not privileges. It’s that easy.”
But the year is 1968, the boss is the mighty Ford Motor Co., and the rule of the working world is that women make less money than men. And so if you happen to be one of the 187 female machinists stitching together seat covers at Ford’s factory in working-class Dagenham, England, you are not expected to register much displeasure when your status is downgraded from skilled to unskilled to save the company money. You are supposed to understand and accept that the 55,000 male workers toiling on the same grounds are going to be paid — and valued — more than you.
But this way of thinking doesn’t sit well with plucky Rita (Sally Hawkins of Never Let Me Go and Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky). Spurred by a cheekily feminist supervisor (Bob Hoskins) who shrewdly sees the makings of a leader behind her bright smile, Rita agrees to accompany him to a meeting with the shop’s union boss. And when the union leaders reveal themselves as all too willing to ignore the women’s grievances to appease management, Rita leads her sisters out on strike, first for a day to protest the downgrade, then on an all-out walkout demanding equal pay.
Based on the real-life strike by the Dagenham machinists — some of whom appear over the closing credits — the film deftly captures the era; the details of the costumes alone are worth marveling over. But Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls) clearly indicates that while some of these women may copy the styles of Carnaby Street, they’re far from frivolous. They have jobs for practical, not idealistic, reasons. Rita’s genial husband Eddie (Daniel Mays), for example, also works at the Ford factory; with two kids, they need two salaries to pay the bills on their council flat. Rita’s best mate Connie (Geraldine James) needs her job because her husband, psychologically damaged in World War II, can’t work. The younger, single, fashion-crazy women need to pay their rent — and for their hot pants.
Cole keeps the tone mostly light (one recurring funny bit involves the women’s stripping down to their bras upon entering the leaky, poorly ventilated workplace and shouting “MAN!” when a guy dares to enter). The situation grows more grim, though, when Ford runs out of seat covers and shuts down the plant, thus putting the men out of work, too. Suddenly the guys who found the women’s strike amusing are furious. The lengthening strike has ill effects on Rita and Eddie’s usual good rapport, too, but Rita has found her voice in this unexpected struggle for social justice, and she isn’t ready to give in quietly. Made in Dagenham gamely depicts an interesting bit of history, but its real message is a matter of principle.
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Daniel Mays, Miranda Richardson.
Director: Nigel Cole.
Writer: William Ivory.
Producer: Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley.
A Sony Pictures Classics studios release. Running time: 113 minutes. Language, brief sexuality. Playing at: area theaters