I often watch films I know almost nothing about, apart from the title. One of the great pleasures of this kind of film viewing is being able learn about something that is entirely new to me. Now I am going through British films of the last 10 years, and probably never would have seen Made in Dagenham otherwise. I had never heard of the Ford sewing machinists strike of 1968, in which scores of British women walked out of there jobs assembling car seat covers for the American company after they were reclassified as unskilled laborers and given lower pay than men in the same category. As the film started to get going, I had the strange feeling that I was watching a remake of Norma Rae—there is even a scene in which the main character stands up on a sewing table in the middle of a busy factory floor. But the nature of the strike, and the women behind it, was distinctly British. The strike started small, but had big repercussions, leading to the introduction of the Equal Pay Act of 1970 of Britain, with other countries soon following suit. The newsreel clips of the actual strike and video interviews with the women today which play alongside the closing credits were fascinating, and were enough to make me wish that this were a well constructed documentary rather than a ever -so-slightly fictionalized film.
On the other hand, there are some wonderful performances in this film. Miranda Richardson is as good as always as Barbara Castle, a pioneer of the British labor movement, although at first I mistakenly thought she was playing a young Margaret Thatcher. It is always a pleasure to see Bob Hoskins in anything, and seeing him a union leader grown jittery when the strike threatens to spiral out of control, it was enough to make me sad that the has announced retirement due to Parkinson’s Disease. Sally Hawkins, who I have only seen in a few minor roles, was able to carry the film as a composite character strike leader.
But the real stand-out performance comes from Andrea Riseborough. Having seen her as the mousy, timid Rose in Brighton Rock, I was surprised to see just how versatile she is, playing the tart with a heart of gold, who doesn’t mind a tumble with a driver in the back of his produce truck if it will get her some fruit for her girls to snack on while on the picket line. I haven’t seen her in Madonna’s W.E. yet, which is her first time in a main role, but Riseborough is definitely a very skilled actress, and I hope she will continue to get great roles in the future.