The protest that would lead to a significant change in British law guaranteeing equal pay for women begins inauspiciously enough. It's a summery day in 1968 in the factory town of Dagenham, not far from London. The morning streets are filled with workers bicycling into the massive Ford Motors plant.
Most of the facility is state-of-the art new, but the women are relegated to sewing car seat covers in an old sweatshop of the type that put the sweat in the shop. It's so hot they strip down to their bras (strictly utilitarian, no Victoria's Secret here) to keep from melting.
The straw that breaks the camel's back and sets the course for the very shrewd fun of "Made in Dagenham" comes when union rep Albert ( Bob Hoskins), eyes covered against the barely clad, makes his way to the shop floor to bring news that the women's request to be classed as skilled workers, which would bring a pay upgrade, has been turned down. In a sort of Debby versus Goliath play led by one of the machinists, Rita O'Grady ( Sally Hawkins), they buck the union and Ford executives and start a ripple effect that will impact laws and lives.
"Made in Dagenham" is not assembly-line fare, but enlightenment of the quietest sort, no real radicals around, and the ones that come close would meet you at the pub for a pint. British director Nigel Cole has an appealingly arch way of looking at human foibles, even when dealing with historical fact, which he is here. In "Dagenham," the filmmaker applies just the right pressure in examining why paying someone a fair wage, no matter their gender, shouldn't be all that difficult to agree to. Harrumph.
In issue-driven movies like this, things can get polarized fast but luckily, Cole opts not to go dark and melodramatic. His 2000 film "Saving Grace" did after all solve Brenda Blethyn's widow's debt with a profitable pot business long before "Weeds" became a cult hit. There are a couple of things that help set the tone right away, starting with cinematographer John de Borman's light touch — even the sweatshop has a coffee-klatch vibe in the same way that he helped bring the verve to another blue-collar gem, "The Full Monty."
With the help of the production, costume and hair team (Andrew McAlpine, Louise Stjernsward and Lizzie Yianni Georgiou, respectively), De Borman captures a '60s look complete with beehives and the kind of poufs even Snooki would envy. It's all set to a very bouncy mix of '60s pop — with the "Israelites" rocking reggae, who wouldn't want to "Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir/so that ev-e-ry mouth can be fed…"
It also helps that Cole and screenwriter William Ivory have given Hawkins and her cohorts an insistent persistence and a lot of good humor, instead of strident histrionics, to argue their case. That kind of pragmatism suits Hawkins well. There is something so likably down to earth about the actress, probably best known as the irrepressible optimist Poppy in Mike Leigh's 2008 comedy of manners, " Happy-Go-Lucky," that whatever your politics it's hard not to root for her.
Hawkins' performance as "Dagenham's" unassuming heroine, an amalgam of several key figures who stepped up back in the day, is first-rate and already generating some Oscar talk. Watching a resourceful and resilient Rita emerge as a meeting with Ford execs goes south, is one of those transformative moments that you always hope for when the line between actor and character no longer exists.
Rita's journey of empowerment is the heart of the film, but the screenwriter never forgets this is not just one woman's story. He's stirred up a rich brew of characters to create a cross-section of life and attitudes at the time. On one side is the equal-pay group: blue-collar girls with big dreams led by Jaime Winstone, adorable as a blond bombshell working her short-shorts sisterhood; the Cambridge-educated trophy wife ( Rosamund Pike) whose marriage is increasingly fraught; and Miranda Richardson's steely smart secretary of Employment among the best.
On the other, we have the smarmy union leader Monty ( Kenneth Cranham), a couple of sycophants as undersecretaries (and comic relief), and of course the Ford suits both in Britain and stateside, with Richard Schiff (missed terribly since Toby and "The West Wing" shut down) doing a nice turn at being heartless from the heartland.
There are a few good guys that go a long way to balance things out. Hoskins is a mischievous cuddle as the union schemer in Rita's corner. And Daniel Mays turns Rita's husband, Eddie, into an endearing regular bloke, confusion taking up permanent residence on his face as he tries to understand his changing wife, fix his daughter's pigtails and figure out how to do the wash.