Oh, the British: When they’re not portraying the working classes as grim and hard-bitten (“Fish Tank,” “Harry Brown”), they make twinkly movies about the sweetest proletariat on earth. There’s a whole subsection of UK Cute films about blue-collar types doing something mildly naughty – “The Full Monty,” “Calendar Girls,” and “Kinky Boots,” to name just a few – and then there are the ones about underdogs triumphing, like “Greenfingers,” “On a Clear Day” and “Brassed Off.”
To the latter category, add “Made in Dagenham,” a tale about the dozens of female Ford Motors employees who brought all of the company’s auto plants in England to a stand-still when they went on strike for equal pay. And while the timing is perfect for a movie in which factory workers win a moral victory over the big corporations – oily auto exec Richard Schiff warns cabinet minister Miranda Richardson that if the government doesn’t keep the unions in line, companies will take their plants elsewhere – this isn’t the sort of movie that feels tethered enough to the real world to inspire anyone. (The truest moments happen over the closing credits, where we see footage of and interviews with the real lady strikers, making one wish that they’d made a documentary instead of this contrived fiction.)
Still, enough talented British actors draw a paycheck to keep “Made in Dagenham” from being a total loss. Sally Hawkins (“Happy-Go-Lucky”) stars as Rita O’Grady, a wife and mother who, with dozens of other women, sews by hand the leather seat covers and inside-door panels for Ford cars while the men – including Rita’s husband Eddie (Daniel Mays) – work as machinists and linemen. It’s when Ford decides to classify the women’s work as “unskilled,” with an accompanying decrease in pay, that the female union members decide to strike.
Guided by Albert Passingham (Bob Hoskins) – whose childhood with a single mum makes him sensitive to gender-based pay inequality – the women go from a one-day strike over classification to an all-out work stoppage to demand the same pay that men receive. While Rita discovers her voice and her power – in a way that makes “Made in Dagenham: feel like “Norma Rae” and about a dozen movies Jane Fonda made between 1975 and 1985 – the men at the plant begin to resent being put out of work on the ladies’ behalf, even though the women had steadfastly stood by the male union members during their previous strikes. And of course we get the requisite scenes where Eddie burns the dinner and blames Rita for not spending enough time ironing his shirts and taking care of the kids.
Since the movie is set in the late 1960s, director Nigel Cole (whose previous excursions into whimsy include “Saving Grace” and the aforementioned “Calendar Girls”) throws us as much white lipstick and beehive hairdos as he possibly can. He also drags things out about 30 minutes past the point of necessity, although there’s certainly no faulting his casting. It’s just a pity that such great performers such as Hawkins, Hoskins, Richardson, and Rosamund Pike (“An Education”) don’t get more to do.
Pike actually gets one of the film’s best scenes – she plays the wife of a Ford exec who treats her like a hausfrau despite her college education, and her character emerges as an unlikely but desperately needed supporter of Rita at a pivotal moment. There’s also a nice argument between Eddie and Rita, where he proclaims he’s neither abusive nor an alcoholic, and she retorts that that’s the least he’s expected to do as a husband.
But such moments of honest humanity are few and far between in a film that takes what was no doubt a valiant and game-changing labor battle and turns it into another Brit flick that tries desperately to be adorable.
Duralde is the author of “Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas" available on Amazon.com and the DVD Editor of Movieline. He's also written for MSNBC and the Rotten Tomatoes Show.