With all the heart of Norma Rae minus the grittiness of North Country, Made in Dagenham is the tale of unlikely labor leader Rita O'Grady (Sally Hawkins), a wife and mother who works at the Ford factory in the town of Dagenham, who, once she discovers that the women in this factory are being exploited, makes it her mission to fight for equal pay for equal work. The film is based on the true account of the British women machinists strike in 1968, and director Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls) incorporates archival footage and retro set pieces to set the tone for this tale of female empowerment. He takes a light approach to introducing the players before delving deeply into dramatic territory, and though the film starts off slowly it hits its stride once it gets away from its light and airy machinations and starts offering more dramatic moments where Hawkins gets to flex her acting muscles.
The story centers on Rita O'Grady, a quiet, unassuming working-class heroine, wife, and mother who works at the Ford factory in Dagenham, England, where she stitches together car-seat upholstery along with 187 other women. Ford, who classifies these women as unskilled laborers, proposes a pay cut, but sympathetic union rep Albert (Bob Hoskins) encourages Rita to join the union negotiations. The ladies want to be classified as semi-skilled workers -- no more unpaid overtime or they'll call off work -- so when management calls their bluff, Rita transforms herself into a hardened labor leader and launches an all-out strike that causes the Ford plant to shut down and brings management to their knees. However, when resident villain and union-buster Robert Tooley (Richard Schiff) plays his trump card and threatens to take Ford's business elsewhere, Rita and the ladies must band together and push for equality.
Screenwriter William Ivory lets the story play out just as you would expect, but without the twists, turns, and little surprises that would have made the film less paint-by-numbers. Still, Dagenham is truly heartfelt and inspiring regardless of the supposed feminist placebo effect, but what makes the movie the most engaging is Hawkins' performance. She shines as the witty and intelligent activist Rita O'Grady, and even when things get rough for Rita -- her marriage in trouble, the men's union working against her, top-level executives targeting her from overseas -- Hawkins pushes through with thoughtful emotion and skilled effectiveness. You truly follow her on a journey that transforms her from passive housewife to silver-tongued leader.
The meatiest part of the film is nearly halfway through, but these moments are what make the film powerful, and though the subject matter seems outdated and gender-specific, Cole does a good job of revisiting an issue that still resonates with people today. Don't be surprised if you see these women picketing their way to the Oscars. Hawkins' performance alone is enough to draw the Academy's attention, and despite a few bumps along the way, Made in Dagenham is a soulful retro romp for everyone's inner activist.