This is that all-too-rare treat: a movie that is enthralling from beginning to end, where you hang on every word and are transported for the duration.
Based on real events that were historically pivotal in enshrining gender pay equity in British legislation, the story focuses on an individual, Rita (Sally Hawkins), and her transformation from uncertain spokesperson reluctantly representing her female co-workers in a pay dispute with a powerful employer to unstoppable and inspirational union leader.
It’s the summer of 1968, Dagenham, England. The Ford Motors plant provides employment for many of Dagenham’s working class residents, including a small minority of women who slave away machining leather door trim and upholstery in sweatshop conditions. So hot does it get inside the sheds in which they work, that many routinely strip down to their underwear. When it rains, the roof leaks.
The women are disgruntled that they are paid the lowliest of wages as unskilled workers, and when it comes to their attention that their male peers receive considerably more, they decide to strike. Rita is pushed to take on a leadership role, which she grows into as the fight for equality of remuneration assumes epic proportions.
The battle lines are initially clear: workers vs the Ford executives. However, as the fight progresses Rita realises that she is up against not only her employer, but her own union, which is run by crusty old geezers who maintain a comfortable symbiotic relationship with the Ford execs; in exchange for keeping a lid on their members’ gripes, they enjoy ongoing perks such as all-expenses-paid conferences in Paris and posh grub in the inner sanctum of the union premises.
As Rita’s involvement demands more and more of her time and energy, she is unable to keep up her customary – and at that time, expected – multiple domestic roles as mother, lover, housekeeper, cook and cleaner. She is under pressure from all fronts – her husband, male employees at the Ford plant whose families are suffering from economic privations imposed by the strike, and even some of her fellow workers whose personal lives are being adversely affected. In fact, she is fighting on a grander scale than she could ever have imagined, against a camouflaged enemy of almost overwhelming might: the prevailing culture of ingrained sexism.
Sally Hawkins plays Rita with restraint and dignity. Far from a militant feminist stereotype, Rita is an ordinary working class family woman called to an extraordinary mission that demands enormous courage and unwavering commitment to principle – and as Hawkins presents her, she is endearing and entirely credible. A beautiful performance. The supporting cast is also excellent.
This is a story that deserves to be told. Now it has been – and very bloody well, some 60s cliches and the odd bit of dodgy scripting notwithstanding.
On one level this is a political piece, a dramatisation of a working class struggle for fair treatment in the workplace, but more than that it is a rousing affirmation of the potential of the individual to make a difference against the odds, and of the undeniable power that derives from standing up for what you believe in without compromise, no matter what. It’s a tale oft told, but not so oft this well.
Go. Be inspired. And if you’re not moved by this, you’re a heartless Tory fossil suspended in ideological amber and disconnected from humanity.
For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives