Made in Dagenham adheres to the conventions of blue-collar drama with an almost machine-like precision, but it's far from rote assembly-line material. Nigel Cole's unexpectedly timely workers' rights yarn is surprisingly entertaining, occasionally rousing, and absolutely likeable, even if it offers few surprises along the way.
Sally Hawkins stars as Rita O'Grady, one of 187 seamstresses employed at Ford's auto plant in Dagenham, England, in 1968. The thousands of men who labor at the factory do so in an enormous, state-of-the-art facility, while the women spend their days packed into a run-down, unventilated shack where the heat forces many of them to strip to their underwear as soon as their shift begins. The latest indignity involves their pay grade; the women—skilled machinists who turn scraps of material into finished seat covers—are classified as unskilled laborers, thus earning only 85 percent of the wages paid to their male counterparts. With the encouragement of their union representative (a puckish Bob Hoskins), the women undertake a 24-hour strike that will have unexpected repercussions.
Okay, so they're not unexpected. Practically every plot point in Made in Dagenham is thoroughly expected, but the movie is no less entertaining for its predictability. In fact, Cole, who trod similar thematic ground in 2003's Calendar Girls, shrewdly uses our expectations to the film's advantage. For instance, there's no avoiding comparisons to a certain other drama about a young woman who rallies her fellow laborers against unfair working conditions, but Cole uses the similarities to invite contrast. When Rita climbs onto a table to urge her co-workers to strike, the scene plays out quite differently than its iconic American counterpart. Rita is more Mary Richards than Norma Rae; hesitant, skittish, and eager to please, she's a most unlikely heroine. Played with quiet grace and endless charm by Hawkins, Rita quickly rises to the occasion and becomes a poster girl for the fight for wage equality—a struggle that will eventually take her and her colleagues to the office of cabinet minister Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson).
If it courts certain genre expectations, though, Made in Dagenham deftly avoids others. You know that catty type who shows up in practically every movie whose plot hinges on the actions of a group of women? Well, if she was lurking about Dagenham in 1968, she apparently wasn't working for Ford. William Ivory's script casts an approving smile rather than a suspicious glare upon the sorority of women. Without exception, the female characters exhibit more than one type of solidarity. From O'Grady (actually an amalgamation of several of the story's real-life players) to Castle (a legendary Labour politician who, in pre-Thatcher days, was considered a safe bet to become Britain's first female prime minister), the women are unwavering in their support of one another. It's a nice change from the backbiting and infighting that so often characterize any film or television show that centers on a largely female cast.
The men of Made in Dagenham don't fare nearly as well. Except for Hoskins' saint-like union organizer and Rita's loyal husband (Daniel Mays), almost every man in the film is either an ineffectual doofus or a mean-spirited bigot (or both). The casting doesn't help matters much; Ford execs and their union cronies are played by actors who could have wandered into Dagenham or London via some cursed Lovecraftian hamlet. Even the most even-handedly portrayed Ford honcho (Rupert Graves) comes off looking like a buffoon in contrast to his elegant, Cambridge-educated wife (a scene-stealing Rosamund Pike).
Even if you know where it's going, Made in Dagenham makes the most of getting you there. It might take some viewers a while to acclimate to the characters' thicker-than-London-fog accents, but that's a minor detraction; during the occasional scenes where you've no idea what anyone is saying, you'll have plenty to look at, and listen to, thanks to the film's flawless art direction and its punchy late-'60s soundtrack.
Unfortunately, and especially in the wake of last week's Oscar wins, Made in Dagenham is likely to be lost in the shadow of a similarly crowd-pleasing historical drama about another mild-mannered Brit who taps into hidden reserves for the good of those around him. That's really too bad. Movies that make you feel as good as Made in Dagenham does are in short supply these days; you really should make room in your schedule for both.