“Made in Dagenham” is a British import as cheeky and charming as a Mini Cooper, although a Ford might be more fitting. The based-on-a-true story is set in the ‘60s in Dagenham, a dreary company town in England, that company being Ford Motors. While thousands of men churn out autos in gleaming new factories, 187 women toil in decrepit conditions, sewing the cars’ seats and interiors. After their work status is downgraded to unskilled, with commensurate pay reduction, the ladies decide to take action against their bosses. Their journey from apolitical workers to advocates of fair pay for all women is alternately hilarious and poignant, complete with raucous rallies and even the latest in hot pants.
“The director [Nigel Cole] describes it as a celebration, and I like that interpretation,” says costar Miranda Richardson, “because while it has a serious point to make, it’s not a tub-thumping thing.” As Barbara Castle, secretary of state for employment and productivity, Richardson keeps tabs on the women’s actions. While quietly supportive, she’s equally aware that angering Ford could prove disastrous to the British economy. It’s a role as formidable as the actress, and she clearly takes to it with relish.
Richardson admits that she hadn’t heard of the historical events until she read the script. “At that time, my head was full of horses,” she recalls, speaking by phone from her home in London. “I was little.” But the resonance of the women’s actions is undeniable. As she notes, part of the reason to fight such battles is so that one’s children won’t have to fight them as well. That said, “It’s a luxury not to worry about such things. But it’s good to know where you come from.”
Coming to the role with little time to prepare, she read biographical materials and watched news conferences and speeches, an experience she found thoroughly enjoyable. “I think she’s infectious,” she says of Castle. “She’s just so full of life. She’s also searingly intelligent, and she’s a fabulous collaborator. She’s absolutely in her element, doing what she should be doing.”
Richardson likens the character to a very different true-life role she played, that of T.S. Eliot’s wife, Vivienne, in 1994’s “Tom and Viv.” She found Viv “incredibly liberating, because she was almost incapable of telling a lie, she just was who she was. That’s what I feel about Barbara, she’s authentic and fabulous. They’re free in themselves; they know that they’re not making anything up.” The film opens Nov. 19.
In her stellar three-decade career, Richardson has been nominated for two Oscars, for 1992’s “Damage” and “Tom & Viv.” She has garnered numerous Golden Globe and BAFTA nods as well, winning the latter once and the former twice. This year, she starred in the AMC series “Rubicon” as Katherine Rhumor. She’s also featured in another little movie coming out this holiday season, " Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1.” It’s her second of three in the series.
Those films have introduced her to a new generation of moviegoers for her role as the venomous tabloid scribe and Potter antagonist Rita Skeeter. “I love that,” she declares. “It’s very nice to be part of a classic, which I’m hoping will hold up very well over time and possibly even be groundbreaking. Things date so fast because of special effects, but look how we still love ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and the Ray Harryhausen films. We know they’re kind of hokey,” but the effects aren’t the point. Whether engaging in fantasy or true-life battles, “it’s about storytelling, really. That’s the exciting bit about the business.”