Sally Hawkins does her best Sally Field impression in "Made in Dagenham," playing a plucky Ford factory worker who rouses her fellow female employees to go on strike in demand of equal pay.
But whereas "Norma Rae" had some realism and grit to it, "Made in Dagenham" is a by-the-numbers tale of women taking on the big boys, underdogs beating the big corporation. An inspiring story, sure, but director Nigel Cole ("Calendar Girls") and writer William Ivory tell it without offering much surprise.
The performances from Hawkins and co-stars Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson and especially Rosamund Pike are what elevate the material above its predictability and cliches.
"Made in Dagenham" is based on real events that took place in 1968 at the Ford factory in Dagenham, England, along the Thames River about 12 miles outside London. The 187 women who worked there — "girls" as they were called, regardless of age — stitched car seat upholstery, toiling in a setting so sweltering, they systematically stripped down to their bras as soon as they stepped onto the factory floor. It's an amusing bit whenever a man walks into the room and reacts with embarrassment.
The auto maker, declaring these women unskilled laborers despite the intricacy of their duties, proposes a pay cut. Sympathetic union rep Albert (Hoskins) encourages them to voice their grievances, and taps Hawkins' Rita O'Grady to join him and shop steward Connie (Geraldine James) at a meeting with management.
Rather then sit quietly and nod at appropriate times, as she's been instructed, Rita finds she has something to say. Watching this normally reserved wife and mother of two discover a voice she never knew she had offers some exciting moments, and Hawkins, who was so infectiously charming in "Happy-Go-Lucky," is delightful here, as well.
But when Ford's head of industrial relations, Peter Hopkins (Rupert Graves), responds with only minor concessions to the women's demands, Rita again surprises herself, and everyone else, when she declares that they're going on strike. One day leads to several days, and eventually the plant is forced to stop operating, hurting the livelihood of the tens of thousands of men who work there, including her husband, Eddie (Danny Mays). The guys were supportive if vaguely amused by their action at first, but this really hurts them.
De rigueur montages depict the fame Rita achieves through her outspokenness as the strike drags on, juxtaposed with the frustration that percolates at home. Rita seems on the verge of tears repeatedly, so emotional is their fight, and so obvious "Made in Dagenham" is in depicting it with facile platitudes.
But she does draw the attention of Barbara Castle (Richardson), the secretary of state for employment and productivity, a firecracker of a woman who's sick of being underestimated by men herself. And she finds an unexpected ally in Lisa (Pike), an upper-class wife and mother who just happens to be married to Hopkins, one of the primary people keeping Rita and the other women down.
Pike, whose character is fiercely stylish and Cambridge-educated, steals the show from Hawkins in their few scenes together. While "Made in Dagenham" is about working-class women and their fight, she's stirring things up in her own way that's just as intriguing — and might have made for a better movie.