In 1968, a group of female autoworkers at the Ford plant in the British town of Dagenham went on strike, demanding wages equal to those of their male co-workers and official recognition as semi-skilled workers (their job was to sew seat covers). The three-week strike led not only to a pay raise for Ford’s female employees but also to the eventual passage of a law in the U.K. requiring equal pay for women. It’s a landmark historical event, but the fictionalized drama Made in Dagenham turns it into a series of feel-good platitudes, crafting composite characters and inventing storylines to mold the events into a whimsical dramedy along the lines of director Nigel Cole’s past work (Calendar Girls, Saving Grace).
That’s not to say it isn’t sometimes entertaining. Sally Hawkins is charming as the film’s invented leader of the strike, spunky machinist Rita O’Grady, who goes from tentatively accompanying her union rep (Bob Hoskins) on meetings to rallying her fellow women to demand far more than was originally planned: nothing less than a complete overhaul of Ford’s pay policies. Rita gets a predictable story arc as her put-upon husband starts feeling neglected, and her fellow workers fit neatly into the various types that usually populate movies like this (the aging stalwart, the young tart). Cole brings a sense of fun to the proceedings, and it’s easy to root for these women as they fight for what they obviously deserve.
But while Made in Dagenham is passably amusing, it’s clearly not worth much as history, and its rote parade of obvious plot points can get tiresome. The movie ends with footage of some of the real women who went on strike, still feisty and defiant as senior citizens. A documentary about them might not have been as tidy and convenient, but it probably would have left more of an impact.