The difference between “unskilled” and “semi-skilled” is important to “Made in Dagenham,” both as plot point and as means of evaluation.
As regards plot, it’s about how the revolutionary spirit of 1968 caught hold in the dreary industrial London suburb of Dagenham, when 187 Ford Motor Company seamstresses noted the equality of their work to that of the 55,000 men in an adjacent factory — and demanded, therefore, an equality of pay. Their action was instrumental to Parliament’s 1970 Equal Pay Act, only seven years late by American standards.
And then there is the movie’s approach to this true story, by which screenwriter William Ivory and director Nigel Cole have contrived the sweatshop saga as crowd-pleasing, quaintly mugging English period piece. Commensurate with Cole’s “Calendar Girls,” it is semi-skilled at best. But that’s worth something, right?
Perhaps not surprisingly, a flash of skin will be our way in. This isn’t quite “The Full Monty,” but close: For a while there, it got so hot in that sewing room that the women were stripping down to their underwear just to be able to keep working. Then, apparently, Bob Hoskins arrived, with eyes politely averted and news to impart.
From here it could have gone a number of ways. Hoskins having played both Benito Mussolini and one of the Super Mario Brothers makes for a brief thrill of anticipation, but the movie informs us straightaway that there will be no surprises; here he’s just a saintly union organizer, on hand to nudge the women toward their own self-empowerment. Well, they could use that nudge, otherwise having been characterized only as sassy in quotation marks — and shy, and slutty, and striving, and so on.
They also could use an active character who is not a man. “This needs a leader,” Hoskins says, as if quoting an early Ivory screenwriting brainstorm. “Someone to inspire the girls.” And the winner is Sally Hawkins as a fictional composite, which is amusing because she seems like the only real person in this thing.
Already overloaded on chauvinism from her reflexively threatened husband (Daniel Mays) and her son’s smarmy schoolteacher (Andrew Lincoln), Hawkins now must endure the farce of having to argue that stitching car-seat upholstery to Ford specifications actually requires skill. Of course it does, and so she lets a “Bollocks!” slip out in a meeting with management. She’s surprised at the righteous indignation stirring within her, even if we aren’t.
And even as the movie primes her for its machinations of reluctant-leader shtick, it is exciting to see Hawkins bring her offbeat wit to bear on this character. She understands the need for humility, the daunting acknowledgment of no longer being able to settle for less than what’s deserved. Leading her co-workers on a strike only adds friction to her marriage, and when her husband desperately advises her to consider herself advantaged because he doesn’t beat her, she replies, “For Christ’s sake, Eddie, that’s as it should be!”
Then she leaves him to flounder comically in the former women’s work of housekeeping. It’s as if Ivory and Cole kept telling each other, “Let’s not get too heavy, now.” Playing it self-defeatingly safe, they seem to think a film about organized labor and feminism should be breezy and patronizing, and that the best way to sell an audience on indignation is to be ingratiating. And so “Made in Dagenham” seems uncertain of its own dignity. Self-deprecation is one thing, and a reasonable way to avoid the expected boring-lecture tone, but does anyone really want to watch labor-movement kitsch?
If so, it should have been a musical. Amidst the heartstring-plucking subplots, Ivory’s script does have some patches of eloquence, plus room for Rosamund Pike as one Ford exec’s Oxford-educated wife, who roots Hawkins on, and for Miranda Richardson as a secretary of state who’s quite the boss of her own mincing male subordinates. Still, all this movie ever can do to mitigate its dully favor-currying tone is make a show of letting out occasional coy giggles. Reportedly “We Want Sex” was an early working title, taken from the moment when the women don’t manage to unfurl their “We Want Sex Equality” banner all the way, tee hee. That seems like a dubious mode of feminism. It can be uplifting, but so can a corset.