Director Nigel Cole’s Made in Dagenham owes John de Borman’s creamy, pastel cinematography and balanced lighting that eases the transition from the fictional film to the 1960’s newsreel-like footage in both colour and black and white.
The first scene shows protagonist Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) riding a bicycle to her job at the Ford factory in Dagenham, England. I remember those bicycle scenes when an American senior at Ford threatens labour minister Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson) to withdraw, I recall 40,000 jobs that Ford gives to the United Kingdom. The only character I remember having a car is upper-class Lisa Hopkins (Rosamund Pike). Rita’s coworker Brenda (Andrea Riseborough) also as a quick scene in a Ford, although the car’s ownership isn’t explicitly revealed. I assumed that the company at the time wouldn’t give cars to their workers either for free or for cheaper like they would in Detroit. The company has thus treated the British more as labourers than consumers, and I wonder whether Barbara has caught into this. That or the English and just weird and prefer bikes. The cars don’t fit within the housing apartments in the London suburb anyway.
Hawkins, Riseborough and the other actresses make for good activists. I expect some of the audience to wonder how a meek wife like Hawkins’ Rita to become a loud mouthed expert demagogue. From experience, having a working class job and pointing their eyes and ears in the right directions turn these women from just workers to masters of knowing union rights. The film portray these women at the tail end of their patience, rapidly having the courage to demand equal pay. Rita beautifully portrays the workers’ voice, a character who has experience at the factory and years of pent-up personal anger – e.g. having to deal with her son’s condescending school teacher – to be able to speak up to union presidents and even Barbara without hesitating.
Another way of looking at this feminist courage is looking at the actresses’ CV’s, both Hawkins being busy playing another woman going against the grain and Pike playing another not-your-average perfect wife. How do they do the same things, fail in other movies yet excel here? Is this because the constraints of ‘unique’ storytelling from the other films isn’t found here, surprisingly freeing both actresses to do more? Or because they’re in the driver’s seat, letting the audience see the characters react from one situation to another instead of male actors reacting to them?
Hearing the word ‘feminist’ in describing a film might turn audiences away, fearing that a movie like this will be about the female characters against the men. The men are mostly ‘icky,’ but there are defectors from both sides. There’s Rita’s husband (Daniel Mays) who needed a little convincing and Lisa who was suspected of fighting with her husband, who happens to be a superior at Ford. Thankfully, the characterizations are more subtle and they don’t behave like they have jerseys or labels behind their backs.