Nigel Cole's Made in Dagenham is engrossing and inspiring, despite being the kind of movie in which one of the first words you hear is cheeky and half the images look like they belong on one of those lady-power birthday cards frequently given to unmarried feminists (my own collection is considerable). The film, based on real events, begins in 1968 with a group of women gathered in a British factory, sewing upholstery for Ford Motors. Most have stripped down to their slips and brassieres to make the heat more bearable. We meet various types: the mouthy and malcontent beauty (Andrea Riseborough), the sweet but incompetent aspiring model (Jaime Winstone, daughter of Brit film tough guy Ray) and the old workhorse Connie (Geraldine James,) who serves as shop steward. When their adorable, kindly boss Albert (Bob Hoskins) drops by, he gamely averts his eyes from their state of dishabille.
And then, amid this artfully motley crew, we spot a lady so gentle and unassuming, she might be taken for Frenchie from Grease. She is Rita O'Grady, played by Sally Hawkins, who earned an Oscar nomination two years ago for Mike Leigh's film Happy-Go-Lucky, in which she gave a bravura performance as perennially cheery Poppy, a woman impervious to the world's cruelty. The cognoscenti adored Happy-Go-Lucky, although my baser instincts made me want to punch her. Now, however, I'm completely in Hawkins' thrall. In Made in Dagenham, she's marvelous in the most gracefully understated way, and her performance acts as a steely counterweight to the movie's lesser tendencies.
Rita, a wife and mother of two, becomes the quiet force at the center of a union movement. It starts with the seamstresses' small request to be described and paid as "semiskilled" workers rather than unskilled and then explodes into a nationwide campaign to achieve an equal pay grade with the men in the factory, despite resistance that runs deep within the union itself, at least among the male members and leadership. Rita is not a natural rabble rouser by all rights, Connie ought to lead the charge but Albert steers her into a leadership position. He wants change. He wants equality for these women, who are known to just about everyone as "the girls" (shades of The Girls in the Balcony, Nan Robertson's book about working at the New York Times in the early days of coed newsrooms). "I got brought up by me mum," he explains. "She worked all of her life getting less than half what the blokes at the factory were getting." With Hoskins talking about his mum over a cuppa, Rita's resistance is futile.
Used to being subtly put down by her husband Eddie (Daniel Mays) and dismissed by her son's snotty teacher (Andrew Lincoln), Rita quickly starts to relish the battle. But she's no speechifying Norma Rae. Mounting a chair to tell the girls that their terms have been rejected by Ford and it is time to strike, she takes a big breath and then says simply, "Everybody out." Her delivery isn't quite tremulous it's actually rather confident but you hold your breath for every word, worried that such a quiet sort will fall apart from nerves. She doesn't. "This Rita has a bigger set of balls than you three together," Albert tells the union cabal who urge him to shut Rita and the other girls up. It's nice of him to put it in terms he clearly thinks are flattering, but Rita's strength is purely feminine. She often looks as though she has just discovered the notion of being appreciated for anything. She shares a particularly stirring moment with Rosamund Pike, who plays an upper-class woman who regrets leaving her career for marriage and is thus inspired to cheer on her working-class sister.
The movie will have its detractors, largely because the direction by Cole (Calendar Girls) hits too many predictable movie marks and tries too hard to be cute. There's no need for the shots of Eddie burning breakfast back at home in a spectacularly messy kitchen while Rita goes about saving womankind. That message that men just can't survive without their wives? We're over it. As Barbara Castle, the Secretary of State for Employment, Miranda Richardson has lines that mostly involve her bitchily dressing down her Tweedledum-and-Tweedledee-type minions (someone should cast her as Maggie Thatcher). Richardson is divinely droll, but the character feels wedged in for pacing purposes, even though Castle was in fact instrumental in helping the female workers at Dagenham fulfill their goals.
Then there's the scene in which the good women of Dagenham go to London and unfurl a protest banner reading "We Want Sex Equality," with the word Equality accidentally still rolled up inciting cheers from every man driving by them. There's something unpleasant about this, as if making the women funny airheads will soften the film's premise of strength and sisterhood. My eye fell on Hawkins in this scene as it did in most and Rita looked quietly above and beyond the foolishness. The movie may not be dignified, but Hawkins' portrayal of Rita O'Grady and all that she stands for certainly is.