A scene from Made in DagenhamThere are certain rights generations X through Z do not have to live without because brave men and women before them fought to ensure they’d never have to. Though women are still conquering the glass ceiling in some workplaces, another group guaranteed they’d at least be paid the same amount as their male counterparts for the same work. The battle began 40 years ago in a car plant and had repercussions that were felt the world over. Made in Dagenham is an entertaining dramatization of the events that led to this revolution.

Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) is the catalyst for the 1968 Ford Dagenham strike by 187 sewing machinists that led to the advent of the Equal Pay Act (1970). Working in extremely impoverished conditions for long arduous hours, the women at the Ford Dagenham plant in London, England finally lose their patience when they are reclassified as ‘unskilled.’ They therefore walkout, protesting the widespread sexual discrimination in the workplace. With humour, common sense and courage, they take on their corporate paymasters, an increasingly belligerent local community and, finally, the government itself.

Dubbed “the Revlon revolution,” these women were forced to stand up for themselves when the union they consistently supported refused to support them. Though the elder Connie (Geraldine James) is the heart of the Dagenham machinists, Rita emerges as their voice. As a group, the women call to mind the power of the original suffragettes. Similarly, as Rita pronounces, they are fighting for rights, not privileges.

Though a large part of the women’s struggle involved touring the country to gain the support of other women employed by Ford and garnering ample coverage by the media, the film presents a much wider view of events. We are privy to Rita’s and Connie’s home lives; flies on the wall at meetings of and with Ford executives; spectators in a marriage transforming; and witnesses to the inner workings of parliament, particularly within the office of Labour Party minister Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson). It is this inclusive overview of the affair that makes the film engaging and enjoyable.

Hawkins is undoubtedly the movie’s focal point. She propels the narrative with her brilliant performance, conveying a precarious balance of (sometimes uncertain) confidence and anxiety. As Rita, Hawkins communicates a magnetism that cannot be easily pinpointed. However, not enough can be said about the film’s supporting cast, which in addition to those mentioned includes Bob Hoskins, Rosamund Pike, Daniel Mays, Jaime Winstone and many others. Hoskins and Pike truly standout even though their time on screen is not enormously significant.

Director Nigle Cole, who is also responsible for the equally compelling and cast-driven pictures $5 a Day and Calendar Girls, does a wonderful job presenting an appealing and attention-grabbing movie about a historical happening. The film’s pace is well constructed with something always occurring, either personally or professionally for at least one of the women, and it remains interesting from beginning to end.

To read my interview with Cole and Pike at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival click here.

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