Wednesday 23 March 2011

On DVD: "Made in Dagenham" (Moviemail March 2011)

This skilfully assembled primer in British labour relations history – somewhat undervalued on its theatrical run – unfolds over the landmark summer of 1968. Having seen another request for a pay upgrade rejected, the female employees at Ford’s Dagenham plant – happy housewife Sally Hawkins, stressed Geraldine James, flirty novices Jaime Winstone and Andrea Riseborough – elect to walk out on strike. Coached by sympathetic shop steward Bob Hoskins, Hawkins’ Rita takes up the hammer as a crusader for equal rights. The men don’t know what’s hit ‘em.

From the outside, Made in Dagenham may resemble every other cheery Britflick that’s come along in the wake of its director Nigel Cole’s runaway 2003 hit Calendar Girls, yet the force and relevance of its true-life story emerge from this telling wholly undiminished. The film retains an underlying seriousness of purpose comparable to something like The Full Monty: you have to have a sneaking admiration for any populist work that smuggles a pointed discussion of Marxist ethics between its lively ensemble playing and reassuringly familiar period soundtrack.

Where the film might simply have lapsed into formula, screenwriter William Ivory (TV’s Common as Muck) comes up with a run of dramatically rich, rewardingly acted scenes, as Hawkins’ flinty likability is pitched against Rosamund Pike’s overlooked trophy wife, the wounded pride of her blue-collar husband (the ever-excellent Daniel Mays), and finally an entire trade union conference. The supporting cast is nothing less than A-grade, with Miranda Richardson and John Sessions playing out a funny Westminster double-act as Barbara Castle and Harold Wilson.

Asked whether our heroine’s a member of the Socialist Workers’ or Workers’ Revolutionary Party, Richard Schiff’s urbane Ford negotiator Tooley shrugs “We don’t think she’s with anyone… she just has a beef.” If the struggle has here been depoliticised slightly – the tag Rita and Barbara bond over isn’t “Socialist” or “Marxist” but C&A – it plays out no less accessibly and enjoyably for that: you could, at the very least, watch Made in Dagenham back-to-back with Tout va Bien for an instructive lesson in the genetic differences between British and French cinema.

Made in Dagenham is available on DVD from Monday.

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