By Eric Kohn | Indiewire November 17, 2010 at 3:29AM
The best scenes of "Made in Dagenham" run alongside the end credits. After two hours of a fictionalized take on the 1968 Ford machinists strike, when British women lashed out at the company's unequal payment policies, the real survivors of the protest get a chance to speak up. Recalling their decision to rebel, which resulted in the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1970, a veteran of the experience remarks, "We didn't think we were that strong." In director Nigel Cole's version of the events, however, the strength that paves the way to victory is never less than inevitable.
Sally Hawkins plays Rita O'Grady, the gentle young mother of two and the eventual leader of the 187 women employed by the Ford Motor Company, where they stitch together bits of car seat upholstery, wiping away sweat as they toil in their underwear. The poor compensation makes their terrible working conditions seem even worse, but Rita only takes a stand once the affable union rep Albert (Bob Hoskins), out of allegiance to the memory of his hardworking mother, nudges her into the spotlight. From there, specific complaints about the derogatory labeling of their work as "unskilled labor" develop into a larger movement for equal pay.
Hawkins, whose delicate features perfectly matched her giddy persona in Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky," does a fine job as the by-the-numbers working class heroine unwilling to back down. But William Ivory's screenplay, weighed down by dry British wit and uninspired plotting, fails to intensify the emotional journey on its own terms. Every conflict fits neatly with its resolution: Rita faces cold stares from a roomful of stern Ford reps, then fires back with a monologue that reasserts her control. A nasty spat with her husband (Danny Mays) gets resolved a few scenes later in a tender embrace. When one of her girls briefly sells out, Rita quickly gains her back. Considering that it's a story about the struggle for gender equality in a society opposed to it, "Made in Dagenham" never raises the stakes as high as they can go without quickly bringing them back down to earth.
The most interesting character receives the least amount of screen time. As ornery Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity Barbara Castle, Miranda Richardson grits her teeth and scowls her way through the male-dominated British government. "I'm generally treated as if I were the maid queen," she moans, then finds the ultimate chance to fight back by supporting Rita's cause.
The specter of Ford's dominance over the local industry, represented by its irascible head of industrial relations (Rupert Graves), gives the movie a physical villain for Castle to resist, but Rita's sole enemy is the general perception that her efforts have no practical value. The message only has an impact when she universalizes it. "We're not politicians," she says. "We're working women." It's a simple assertion to match the aims of a movie with intentions that run surface deep.
Timing validates the existence of "Made in Dagenham" more than the specifics of the plot. With the November 17th vote for the Paycheck Fairness Act just around the corner, the movie's release functions as a form of de facto activism -- and a reminder that seemingly outdated problems take their time going away. Nevertheless, no amount of good will can overcome the sappiness of Rita's final statement at a podium that brings everyone to tears -- literally, as most of the cast magically appears in the room in time to get the gist of it.
For all its historical weight, Rita's story routinely falls prey to predictability. Each twist happens on autopilot: The marital disputes, the galvanizing speeches that bring down the house, the final explanatory notes that put a ribbon on the happy ending. Root for the cause, not the product, because "Made in Dagenham" creates the rare situation where a major revolution feels like a minor routine.
criticWIRE Grade: B-