In May of 1968, there were forty-four thousand men working at the Dagenham Ford car manufacturing plant - and one hundred and eighty-seven women. They sewed the interior coverings together for the latest vehicle models, which was termed as unskilled labour so they were paid less than they felt they should have been, and began to plan for industrial action. Leading this movement was one of the workers, Rita O'Grady (Sally Hawkins), who represented the women at meetings with the union and the officials, but there came a point where she took matters into her own hands...
Except there was no such person as Rita O'Grady, and that was a problem: there had indeed been a groundbreaking strike by the women of Ford Motors in Britain which led to legislation not only in Britain but across the world where equal pay for women was legalised, and that was a story worth telling. Whether it was worth telling in this fashion was more up for debate, and if you knew that the director of this was Nigel Cole, and that he directed the very similar in tone Calendar Girls, then you would be aware that an inspiring true life tale would be transformed into the purest cinematic corn under his hand.
Not that he was alone in that, as William Ivory had to shoulder some of the blame, though presumably he simply supplied the script that he was asked for, but it's worth knowing he was a seasoned television writer before he penned this, and also that this was a production of BBC Films which explained why it looked more at home on a Sunday night on BBC One rather than a cinema screen. There was only one aspect which lent itself to the movies, which was the amount of swearing included, reaching Goodfellas levels at some points, and completely inappropriate to the drama at hand, jarring with what should have come up with a better way of making it clear we had to approach this with the requisite seriousness.
Rita becomes the figurehead of the equal pay movement, with backing from Bob Hoskins as the understanding shop steward and token sensible male, which resulted in some especially didactic speeches and dialogue, suggesting they had not found the right style for what was either a political drama or a slice of life soap opera, but not both. Miranda Richardson got to essay the role of Barbara Castle, one of the most respected Members of Parliament of her time, so we should be thankful the film didn't have her effing and blinding as well, while John Sessions got to do his best Mike Yarwood impression as Harold Wilson, both real people, which begged the question why the actual women of the dispute had to be illustrated by invented characters.
One answer to that is that the real crusaders were not as glamorous as the likes of Hawkins, Rosamund Pike, Andrea Riseborough and Jaime Winstone, as we see in the end credits where genuine news footage from the late sixties gives a tantalising peek into what could be a fascinating documentary in the right hands. That they had to appeal to the heartstrings with deadening arguments between Rita and her husband (Daniel Mays) who is feeling emasculated (not literally) by his wife bringing Ford to its knees in the UK, and even worse conjured up a deeply offensive subplot where someone commits suicide (!) to demonstrate the toll these newly feminist women took on their family lives was almost as patronising as the comments from the characters set up as opponents of the cause. It wasn't a complete loss, as the cast was fine, and the important message of equality got across which was surely what mattered, but as a document it was shaky, and as entertainment it was hollow. Music by David Arnold.