Made In Dagenham closes with a few moments of documentary footage that provide a vivid glimpse at the real women behind a 1968 strike that shut down Ford production in the UK in the name of achieving equal pay for equal work for women. Though just a fraction of the Ford workforce—fewer than 200 out of thousands—they held the line in spite of pressure on several fronts to bow down or settle for an unacceptable compromise. The women look like ordinary people pushed too far. They also look like they have far more interesting stories to tell than those found in the rest of the film.
Director Nigel Cole brings the same unchallenging tone and manufactured uplift he brought to Calendar Girls, and William Ivory’s script offers a challenge similar to the one offered by that film, asking a lot of talented British actresses to flesh out some thinly conceived material. At the fore this time: Sally Hawkins, who plays an unassuming machinist tired of having her diligent work stitching together seat covers in unpleasant conditions classified as unskilled labor, and fed up with receiving pay to match. Hawkins plays a composite of several real women, and her character is drawn with an Everywoman blandness that, happily, Hawkins seems incapable of delivering. She’s alive in every scene, particularly the ones opposite Bob Hoskins as a veteran union organizer who takes a growing interest in seeing that the women get the pay they deserve. Their moments together show how great actors can elevate mediocre material.
But make no mistake. In spite of its worthy subject matter and good intentions, Made In Dagenham remains mediocre to the core. The film piles pat subplots atop pat subplots while trafficking in cardboard heroes and villains and easy laughs. One improbable stretch involves Ford execs trying to convert an impressionable striking worker with the promise of a career in fashion modeling. At another point, the women hold a banner reading “We want sex equality,” but fail to unfurl it far enough to reveal the last word. Cue yuks. Cue an interesting bit of history getting ground up, processed, and reheated.