Made in Dagenham: movie review

In the sometimes preachy 'Made in Dagenham,' the fight for equal pay gets a feel-good spin with Sally Hawkins's lead.

By , Film critic

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    Sally Hawkins is shown in a scene from, 'Made in Dagenham.'
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If you remember Sally Hawkins as the relentlessly chipper heroine of "Happy-Go-Lucky," you may not be prepared for her role as a union firebrand in "Made in Dagenham," based on actual events in 1968. It's as if Miss Goody Two Shoes had morphed into Norma Rae.

Hawkins's Rita O'Grady, a young married mother, works alongside 187 other women for the Ford motor company in the London suburb of Dagenham. Whereas the 55,000 men who work at the plant are housed in a clean, new facility, the women must contend with sweatshop conditions in a facility dating back to the 1920s.

Compounding the indignity, their specialized work sewing car-seat upholstery is classified by the company as "unskilled," for which they are paid far less than the men. When their kindly union rep, Albert (Bob Hoskins), encourages the women to bring their grievances to Ford, Rita, along with the shop steward Connie (Geraldine James), are fobbed off with minor concessions.

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To everybody's surprise, including her own, Rita is instantly radicalized. She demands pay parity with the men and declares a one-day strike, which eventually turns into a long-term strike that shuts down the plant – much to the massive annoyance of the men, who tolerated the women's action until it affected their own paychecks.

Socially conscious movies about working-class heroes tend to be preachy and strident, and "Made in Dagenham" is no exception. (Neither was "Norma Rae.") Although it's revivifying to see justice triumph – the actions taken by the real-life women, of whom Rita is a composite character, led to the Equal Pay Act of 1970 – the uplift is boringly inevitable. I would rather have seen a documentary about the real women instead of this workmanlike dramatic rendition.

In fact, the best moments in the movie come when several of the actual women strikers, now in their 60s and 70s, are briefly interviewed under the closing credits. I particularly enjoyed their insistence that, even on the front lines, they behaved like "ladies."

Director Nigel Cole ("Calendar Girls") and screenwriter William Ivory hit all their marks, but that's the problem. Nothing in this movie is surprising. We know that Rita's husband, Eddie (Daniel Mays), who also works for Ford, will bristle at her activities, just as we know he will finally come around.

The filmmakers ease his conversion by portraying Rita as a selfless champion. Although, she neglects her young children for the cause, they are never seen as anything but chipper.

How much better "Made in Dagenham" would have been if Rita's single-minded obsession with equal pay had been given more complex psychological contours. My guess is that Cole and Ivory didn't want to spoil the party by introducing anything as uncheery as mania, and so Rita the social reformer is sainted from the get-go.

Hawkins does all right by her role as written, but I kept imagining what she might have done if she wasn't required to be so unremittingly valorous. In the end, when Rita has joined in victory with the secretary of state for employment and productivity (Miranda Richardson), she's about as emotive as the placards proclaiming her triumph. Grade: B- (Rated R for language and brief sexuality.)

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