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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.