For a movie about fighting for what you believe in, “Made in Dagenham” never puts a toe out of line. What helmer Nigel Cole did for nude society ladies in “Calendar Girls,” he does for female factory workers in this chipper, polished account of the 1968 struggle for gender-blind wage equality at Ford’s car plant in the titular London suburb. Despite its surprise-free development and overreliance on lip-quivering speeches, this old-fashioned feminist rabble-rouser — lent extra sparkle by Sally Hawkins’ plucky lead turn — should appeal primarily to older femmes when it opens Oct. 1 locally and Nov. 19 Stateside.
At the time of the events depicted, the Ford factory in Dagenham employed 187 women as machinists (compared with the 55,000 men who worked at the plant). Opening scenes introduce us to the women, the nature of their work (sewing car seats together) and the sweatshop conditions under which they toiled. One of the film’s mild running gags — in which men walk in to find the girls in various states of undress, due to the wilting summer heat — conveys the bawdy good humor and sense of sisterhood that keep the women sane and unified.
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When the female workers are forced to take a pay cut after being labeled “unskilled,” kind union rep Albert (Bob Hoskins) urges them to voice their grievances and assigns perky, unassuming Rita O’Grady (Hawkins, “Happy-Go-Lucky”) to attend a meeting with upper management. When it becomes clear the men in charge aren’t taking the girls seriously, Rita insists on reduced overtime and wages equal to those of their male counterparts, declaring a one-day strike to show they mean business.
But one day soon becomes several, as the extended strike action is greeted by a flood of news coverage and eventually causes production to grind to a halt when the other unions become involved. William Ivory’s screenplay shows how the labor struggle impacts every layer of the factory and beyond, stretching into the offices of Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), secretary of state for employment and productivity; across the Atlantic into Ford’s U.S. offices; and also into Rita’s home, where her Ford-employed husband, Eddie (Daniel Mays), becomes increasingly resentful of his wife’s working-class-heroine status and his own lost wages.
From there, the picture’s progress is clear enough: The women will pay a price for daring to challenge the status quo, but not so steep that it derails the inevitable happy ending to this cozy bit of uplift.
Occasionally, “Made in Dagenham” successfully pinpoints the deeply rooted sexism of the era, specifically the perception that because men were the breadwinners, the ability to work at all represented a sort of privilege for women. But Cole’s direction soon lapses into a predictable routine, as scene after scene revolves around a woman standing up to an overweening male authority figure; the rousing satisfaction of these individual moments notwithstanding, they start to feel a bit manufactured.
Sporting a cute ’60s bob, Hawkins makes Rita (a composite of two or three women) an irresistible fount of inner strength and no-bull common sense, and her ability to seem surprised by her own outspokenness lends the picture a shot of much-needed spontaneity. Mays is excellent as her loving but far-from-progressive husband, and Geraldine James and Jaime Winstone are strong as factory girls who depend on Rita’s resilience for strength. Richardson dominates the final scenes as a steely politico who knows the challenge of being a woman in power, while Rosamund Pike, as an upper-crust housewife sympathetic to Rita’s cause, nearly upstages Hawkins in their moving scenes together.
Pic is shot in muted colors that evoke the period, while d.p. John de Borman uses the widescreen frame to accommodate row after row of tables on the factory floor as well as the women’s picket lines. Stylish costumes and design elements round out an impeccable tech package.