4 October 2010

Marx and Spencer- MADE IN DAGENHAM Review

There's a faint echo of Richard Curtis about the much acclaimed new British comedy drama Made in Dagenham, which tells the true story of 187 female machinists at the Ford production plant in Dagenham who went on strike in 1968. Graded as "unskilled" by the penny pinching higher-uppers, their dispute became a national petition for equal pay for women.

The girls in the Dagenham plant rally around Rita O'Grady, a housewife who's picked out by kindly union rep Alfred to lead her colleagues. On the troubled road to reform, Rita finds her capabilities stretched to the limit, or so we're meant to think. This, for me, was part of why I didn't quite like Made in Dagenham as much as the ardent fans it's already collecting- the crusade for equal pay was a momentous development in British social justice, but it really doesn't carry any heft here.

That's where the likeness to Richard Curtis' work comes in. He tends to write fairly frothy comedies, and his only film to date that was deeply rooted in actual social history was his ode to rock music and pirate radio, The Boat That Rocked. As I said when I reviewed that film, you come away from this one without much of an understanding of the subject matter. I really can't blame the British film industry for frequently replicating the Curtis model- Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Full Monty (a facsimile of that sensibility) both got nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, but then I can't accuse producers of being too ambitious either.

This one will definitely travel well, if not as well as its forebears, and it's definitely less of a hollow pleasure than some of Curtis' oeuvre. but I don't know that it properly conveys the history, despite the most heartfelt efforts of the script and the cast. Sally Hawkins elevates the whole thing a notch or two with her excellent performance as Rita. It's the stuff that Oscar buzz is made of, but it'll be interesting to see if anything actually comes of that through awards season. The rest of the ensemble kind of take turns to steal scenes, and everyone makes their mark, from Bob Hoskins to Miranda Richardson.

In what feels like a very conscious effort by newcomer Billy Ivory to make it an ensemble, the script makes allowance for most of the characters to have their own subplot going on. There's nothing wrong with developing the characters, and indeed, it's great to see characters so fleshed out and sympathetic. But it does lead to a slightly cluttered narrative, especially when it feels like there's a disconnect from the real meat of the story anyway. Nevertheless, director Nigel Cole gives the film an unmistakable aura of the 1960s- all Marks and Spencer and social change- with an acute sense of period detail that The Boat That Rocked never mustered beyond its soundtrack and costumes.

Made in Dagenham isn't aiming to be a gritty Shane Meadows-esque tale about social injustice, but then it's not aiming for much else either. It's frothy, feel-good Sunday evening fare with a laudable cast, but it's not ambitious enough to make an "extraordinary true story" anything outside of the ordinary. It would be the minor part of a nonetheless interesting double bill with Cemetery Junction, a film where we don't have to be told how right the characters are in order to root for their goals and dreams. Sometimes it's enough for a film to make you feel warm and fuzzy, but in this case, I think there's some squandered potential.

Made in Dagenham is now showing at cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Made in Dagenham, why not share your comments below? I'm with producer Stephen Wooley on the film's 15 certificate. Everyone quote the South Park movie after 3... "Horrific, deplorable violence is okay, as long as people don't say any naughty words!"

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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