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Movie Review: Made in Dagenham

By Philip Martin

This article was published January 21, 2011 at 1:17 a.m.

rita-sally-hawkins-is-a-british-working-class-wife-and-mother-who-changes-the-course-of-labor-relations-in-nigel-coles-sunny-made-in-dagenham

Rita (Sally Hawkins) is a British working-class wife and mother who changes the course of labor relations in Nigel Cole’s sunny Made in Dagenham.

Philip Martin is blogging daily with reviews of movies, TV, music and more at Blood, Dirt & Angels.

— Made in Dagenham is British director Nigel Cole’s straightforward dramatization of the 1968 strike at the Ford Dagenham (near London) assembly plant, where female sewing machinists walked out in protest against sexual discrimination. The walkout eventually led to the Equal Pay Act of 1970, and the principle of equal pay for equal work became the Western standard in fairly short order.

Despite the profound subtext, Dagenham is a light, rather cheerful movie that tells its story in an uncomplicated fashion while leaning heavily on ’60s style and fashion - it’s sort of a Mad Men meets Norma Rae meets Laverne & Shirley affair.And if its rhythms of disappointment and its overcoming are predictable (as is the bass note of tragedy that sounds two-thirds in), it nevertheless affords us the chance to watch some neat actresses at work.

Chief among these is the ever-adorable Sally Hawkins as Rita O’Grady, a married mom of two who stitches upholstery for the automaker. She works in a literal sweatshop (so warm that the ladies there routinely strip to their underthings) with dozens of other women. The work doesn’t seem particularly oppressive; they chat and dish and carry on like high school girls at a sleepover.

When labor rep Albert (Bob Hoskins) shows up, they good naturedly cover themselves and listen as he goes over their options. Would they be up for a one-day work stoppage to protest a recent cut in their pay grade? Sure - they wouldn’t mind a day off.

Later Albert returns, looking for a representative to accompany the union officers on a sit down meeting with Ford managers - really, she wouldn’t need to do anything but sit there and look pretty (and/or vulnerable) while the men get down to business. But Albert is thrilled when Rita agrees to go - he’s got a secret agenda and a special pride in her.

And sure enough, Rita ends up speaking her mind and monkey-wrenching the tidy little agreement the boys had worked out in advance. For her,it’s equal pay for equal work. The girls are walking out.

Cole (Calendar Girls, Saving Grace) has a knack for making movies that appear slighter than they turn out to be, and he’s got a great sense of color and flow (there are a couple of scenes that exploit the rich variety of women’s fashion in the late 1960s). It’s a marvelous visual movie, and even if the script rarely exceeds made-for-television conventions the cast is first-rate, with Rosamund Pike in a small but pivotal role and a clean shaven (and therefore all but unrecognizable) Richard Schiff as a Ford executive from the United States with his eye on the bottom line. (On the other hand, Miranda Richardson’s Barbara Castle - British secretary for employment under then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson - veers a little close to caricature.)

While it might lack the horsepower to run with the acclaimed award-seekers hanging around local cinemas, it’s a very enjoyable movie in its own right. And stick around for the end credits and meet some of the real women of Dagenham.

MovieStyle, Pages 29 on 01/21/2011

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