Review: Made in Dagenham (2010)

Ford vs Ferarri (or Le Mans ‘66 as it was titled in the UK and Europe) was a film released in 2019 about two of the biggest competing race car manufacturers in the world. The adrenaline-fuelled cinematography and editing was excellent, its A List actors (Matt Damon, Christian Bale) put in great performances and the rivalry between Ford in the USA and Ferrari in Italy was gripping. And yet there were no women leads and the only memorable role of a female was that of the main character’s wife, consequently perpetuating the idea that movies about cars, speed and the relating business and politics of the automotive industry only involve men – and perhaps are only to be enjoyed by men. Although Made in Dagenham was released in 2010, nine years prior to James Mangold’s action-biopic-drama, it more than compensates for the lack of female representation in the car industry as displayed in such films.

As the opening montage of footage in MiD runs, a boastful voiceover advertising all the advantages of Ford cars and the breadth of the company immediately prepares us for the chauvinistic world in which the ladies of Dagenham lived. It sets the tone, coming off as sleazy and arrogant, with a knowing satirical edge. The on screen text that follows explains to the audience the challenging context of working at Ford: ‘In 1968 there were 55,000 men employed at Ford’s Dagenham factory… and 187 women.’ That means that for every 1 woman there were 294 men – quite an intimidating ratio.

The wide shots of the section of the River Plant factory where the machinists work, sewing together the upholstery and interior of Ford’s vehicles, is run down and drab in comparison to the shiny head office the audience see later on. The machinists are all women, and they work in sub-par conditions, with temperatures high enough for them to sit working in their underwear one day, and with readily available buckets and umbrellas the next, should the unreliable roofing start leaking again. Despite this, the women have an attitude of ‘just getting on with it’ and produce their work with dexterity, skill and care – even if that means tidying up their friends’ sewing when it’s not quite up to their usual high standards.

The film primarily highlights gender equality through the main historical narrative, but also does an excellent job of highlighting the pitfalls of the British class system through a range of characters too. Setting is one of the tools used to reiterate social class in domestic settings: Rita O’Grady’s (Sally Hawkins) home is located in a tower block which we repeatedly see from an aerial shot as if to show viewers its awkward shape and unsightliness among an otherwise ‘normal’ looking neighbourhood. Contrastingly, Lisa Hopkins’ (Rosamund Pike) home is open plan with airy floor length windows, rich in colour, and adorned with most chic accessories of the 60s.

Incidentally, one of the more underdeveloped arcs in the film is the friendship of Rita and Lisa, as mothers who collide in the school corridor and find common ground over objecting to their children’s teacher who still insists on using corporal punishment. After the teacher imprudently asks Rita, ‘You live on the estate don’t you? We find that those boys have difficulties adjusting to the standards of behaviour required in a school like this.’ He goes on to blame the parents for never having gone through the ‘full rigour of academic life so the boys can hardly look to them for guidance, can they?’ It’s an odd situation to bond over, but after they succeed it is revealed that Lisa has a ‘first class honours degree from one of the finest universities in the world’ as she tells Rita in a burst of frustration. This moment acts as a realisation that the teacher’s comments to Rita were completely unfounded and in retrospect just seem spiteful, classist and based on sadistic hatred rather than pedagogical or sociological principle (as he might have tried to argue previously). It’s hard to think about how many other intelligent, educated - formally or otherwise - women had (and have) to endure this kind of treatment and hollow prejudice.

After the initial exposition, which does a good job of providing an insight into life in the late 1960s in Britain, albeit through rose tinted glasses at times – smiling women with beehives and flipped bobs riding their bikes to work in a convoy in slow motion is admittedly very cinematic, but surely not as enjoyable as they made it look – the perspective narrows to focus on Rita, the protagonist, who is the leader of the industrial strikes, and who becomes the campaign leader for equal pay, gaining local and national press coverage. Rita’s growth throughout the film is admirable: she starts off as a restrained wife, mum, friend and machinist, and develops into an articulate public speaker, trailblazer and leader.

The character of Rita is a little archetypal in that she ‘falls into’ the role of representing the ladies during their initial strike action. However, everything else about her, and Sally Hawkins' performance to go with it, is so compelling it conjures admiration for these wonderful women, alongside hope and courage to overcome the issues we face today.

There is a tangible point in the film Rita decides to stop biting her tongue: she and a couple of her colleagues from the factory are sat in a meeting with Ford’s executives and a couple of union representatives. The men are conversing and the machinists’ strike is being flippantly brushed off as a one-off that doesn’t need any more time or attention. In fact, they even go as far to say that it’s ‘shifting resources away from the blokes’. If the script writers received a note asking them to induce blood boiling levels of anger in this scene, they succeeded! Thankfully, this is counterbalanced when Albert (Bob Hoskins), the only union rep who has their best interests at heart, delivers his line (in reference to the big wigs) ‘exploiting bastards’ in the most satisfying way. In another scene when a group of men - who sit on two very different sides of the proverbial feminist fence - are discussing the relevance and importance of women in the workplace at Ford, one man quotes Marx, saying ‘men write their own history’. They are soon met with a rebuttal from Albert, one of the only male characters who doesn’t find the strikes ‘awkward’: ‘But didn’t he also say progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex?’ Thank you, that man, and all other Alberts in the world.

In the aforementioned 'exploiting bastards' scene, Rita goes from an unassuming cog in Ford’s multi-million money making machine, to a compelling force to be reckoned with. Rita is in a position of having so little to lose that she is willing to put herself on the line for the wellbeing of her friends in the factory, and all other skilled workers who are considered spare parts rather than appreciated, respected and highly regarded people who deserve to be paid appropriately and treated fairly. When she comes at the reps with her undeniably valid set of points and shows no sign of ‘reining it in' or ‘backing down’ or to ‘stop being dramatic’, as all women would have been told at some point in their lives, you just know that this is a going to be an uphill battle that you don’t want to miss.

But like anything worth fighting for, the road to justice for the machinists isn’t a smooth one. Besides having the ballsiness to vote unanimously for industrial action until their demands are met, the ladies of Dagenham have the patience to weather a storm of backlash, doubt and even more poverty since they are forgoing their wages. We see bitterness and resent creep into relationships, priorities shift, households breakdown, and even bribery is an option for some, but it is ultimately Rita’s resolve and impassioned, down to earth speeches that result in change being the only option.

After a while, the mechanical and engineered parts of the cars have no option but to cease production, because, well, what is the point in continuing when you can only produce half of a product? Without the machinists, Ford could no longer continue to make complete products, and therefore started losing money. Nobody expected the machinists to have such an impact on their business model. Nobody expected them to be as gutsy as to carry on campaigning outside of Dagenham. Nobody expected them to be invited to Westminster. The film really hits home the message to all to not underestimate women, including women themselves - even when you feel like you've got nothing left in the tank (car pun mode = activated).

There are several pivotal and outstanding moments of clarity in this film, but the most notable ones are when Rita addresses audiences. Sometimes these are rallying her friends and colleagues to take a collective stand, sometimes these are delivered second hand through black and white television sets, and in several we see her stipulating exactly what the machinists expect before going back to work. The subject matter is perplexing because on one hand a viewer may watch it thinking ‘Of course women should be paid the same wage as men for doing the same level of skilled work’, but on the other hand, it might make you think about remaining inequalities in society today. How is there STILL a gender pay gap? We are constantly reminded in this film through memorabilia, the music, the props and the fashion, that it is a historical drama set in the 1960s. So why does it feel as relevant as ever? Even speaking to a room full of men, some of whom may begin to understand how women experienced life in the 1960s because of their relationship with their wives, mothers, daughters, Rita encapsulates her position passionately and with integrity and they cheer her on because she is right, and equality is right. So why would, and how could, anyone object to equal pay, especially when it is put so eloquently? The mind continues to boggle, even after the credits have rolled.

The most memorable exchange of lines in the film occurs when Rita and Eddie’s relationship is rocky – they’ve just lost their fridge freezer and Eddie has been struggling to keep the household together. He resents her for all the time she is spending away from home. The argument accelerates to the point that he tries to tell Rita that she is lucky that he ‘ain’t out on the beer every night or screwing other women’ and has ‘never once raised his hand’ to her. The fury in Rita’s eyes as she reacts to this is palpable and Sally Hawkins delivers the next few lines with such perfection that the film could have ended there and then: ‘For Christ’s sake, Eddie, that’s as it should be! You try and understand that. Rights, not privileges. It’s that easy. It really is.’

Feminism can be defined as the collective empowerment of all women and in this film, we are treated to the process of how this can happen in small steps when people take big risks and put people before profits. Rita’s adherence and determination to get simple rights for her and her fellow machinists (and beyond) resulted in the Equal Pay Act becoming law in 1970 with similar legislation following in many industrial countries around the world. Now that’s something to smile about whilst riding your bike into work.


Verdict: proof of the power of protest - a light-hearted yet empowering look at a male-dominated industry which succeeds thanks to Sally Hawkins' compelling central performance.

Overall? ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Big screen appeal? 🎬🎬

Accolade eligibility? 💡💡💡

Study-worthy? 📚📚📚


Director: Nigel Cole

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