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Movie Review

Made in Dagenham

Made in Dagenham
Sally Hawkins in "Made in Dagenham"

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Rated R for language and brief sexuality. 1 hour, 53 minutes.
Publication date: Dec. 24, 2010
Review by Peter Canavese
Released: (2010)

"We are the working classes, the men and the women." So goes the rallying cry in the quivering-lip climax of "Made in Dagenham," a dramatization of the pivotal 1968 Ford autoworkers' strike that led to the 1970 Equal Pay Act in the United Kingdom.

While the story of these striking seat-cover seamstresses is well worth telling (and sadly still relevant, given the need for last year's Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act), screenwriter William Ivory and director Nigel Cole ("Calendar Girls") do not tell it well. The basic facts have been mulched into a simplistic inspirational tale with a prevailing light comic tone and a surplus of cliches culminating in a self-satisfying pat on the back for all. It's a story so politically correct, in our time, that no one would even think of questioning it. And Cole puts forward a film that's wholly reassuring and completely unchallenging.

Sally Hawkins, so good in Mike Leigh's "Happy Go Lucky," here plays Rita O'Grady, a chipper machinist for Ford's Dagenham plant. Having languished under unfair treatment for years, the women begin to feel that the times may be on their side, and Rita finds herself the popular choice to be their spokeswoman. As it turns out, she's expected to sit and listen as the men -- including Ford's head of industrial relations (Rupert Graves) and the local union leader (Kenneth Cranham) -- do the talking. But Rita heroically pipes up, setting in motion a workers' walkout that settles into a long, tense stalemate.

The tension migrates from work to home for both management and the working class. On the council estate, Rita doesn't quite get the full support of her gape-mouthed husband, Eddie (Daniel Mays), while Rita's new best friend, Lisa (Rosamund Pike), turns out to be sleeping with the enemy; she's married to the man tasked with quashing the strike. It doesn't help the storytelling that the characters play as stereotypes -- Mays as an overgrown yobbo, Pike as the deferential posh wife -- whose character arcs will evidently lead to lessons learned. (To balance Mays' neanderthal, we get Bob Hoskins as a sympathetic shop steward.)

Cole would rather caricature history than play subtle notes; as a result, the film's most pertinent details nearly get lost in the shuffle. What turn out to be interesting in "Made in Dagenham" aren't the social melodramas (like an underfed side plot involving the physical deterioration of one worker's husband) but rather watching political sausage get made by the small-timers (the craven union boss more interested in his all-expense-paid trips into the city for steak lunches) and the power players (Miranda Richardson's Secretary of State for Labour & Productivity, caught between the rock of her gender loyalty and the hard place of protecting a delicate economy).

Cole has a fine cast here, but he hasn't protected them by calibrating their performances for the screen. "Made in Dagenham" is right to champion greater wages for women, but when it comes to art, bigger isn't always better.