In her first starring role since her extraordinary work in Happy-Go-Lucky (her part in Never Let Me Go was tiny, albeit narratively crucial), Sally Hawkins sews car seat upholstery, waves placards, and ultimately catalyzes major social change as Rita O'Grady, who leads her fellow female employees in the 1968 strike at Ford's plant in Dagenham that eventually resulted in the UK's Equal Pay Act of 1970. The strike was real; Rita isn't—she's a fictional composite of various actual strikers whom the producers met when researching the story. In the form of Hawkins, Rita comes alive. The actress's relatable charm never falters, even while the movie around her mires itself in storytelling banalities and a finally wearying put-upon peppiness.
The story is worth telling. The women went on strike because their skilled labor was being compensated at unskilled rates, solely due to their gender. And the act was not without risk of intense alienation, because no seat covers soon meant no cars, which meant that Ford Dagenham had to shut down all production, leaving thousands of men temporarily unemployed and resentful. The women persisted, the union men in large part eventually supported them, Secretary of State Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson in the film) was convinced, and the result was tangible (if not immediate—it would take another strike in 1984 to get Dagenham women up from the less to the more skilled wage).
A crucial and dramatic historic moment for feminism, it's neutered by the stale brew of family drama and light comedy in Billy Ivory's screenplay, and by the arbitrary, post-Full Monty aesthetic of Nigel Cole, manufacturer of personality-free Quality UK Product like Savage Grace and Calendar Girls. Any sense of the drudgery of factory work is glossed over as the girls smilingly bicycle into work, scored to classic Brit rock, before impudently stripping down to their bras to cool off and start sewing. No Marxist exposé this, the entrance sets Made in Dagenham's obstinately buoyant tone, belabored further during crowd-pleasing speeches by Richardson (in fiery redhead mode insulting two entitled but outclassed male auxiliaries), and shots of Rita's husband (Daniel Mays) at home, struggling to play Mr. Mom with steaming stovepans like Dustin Hoffman in Kramer Vs. Kramer. One protest near Parliament seems to be a success as it elicits honks and hollers from male passersby, but it's because the women's banner reads "We Want Sex"—the final word "Equality" is obscured. If you're not laughing, you're not alone, but Ivory and Cole are all-fired intent on showing that these petticoated heroines used humor to persevere.
As if uncomfortable with the idea of making a comedy, the filmmakers dwell on the collateral damage of Rita's protesting—her unraveling marriage to Eddie, also employed at the assembly plant. He's getting shit from his "breadwinner" male buddies, and he doesn't like doing the laundry, but he's too ineffectual for any of his threats to deter the tenacious Rita. A confusing subplot about their son getting over-caned at school seems to exist only to bring together Rita and Lisa (Rosamund Pike), a Cambridge-educated beauty married to a patronizing Ford executive. A serious tragedy late in the movie changes Made in Dagenham's tune for good, leaving the rest for Rita's impassioned speeches, delivered to doughy, well-meaning Eddie and eventually to the union. To his credit, Cole understates the climactic meeting between Secretary Castle and a few of the women—the decision to go forward with the Equal Pay Act is decided casually over whiskey and sherries.
Opens November 19