Made in Dagenham (R) (113 min.) — The stakes are familiar in Nigel Cole's movie, based on another true story of working women rebelling against a sexist system. Locations and occupations change but it's the same path to empowerment and usually inspiring; Norma Rae and Erin Brockovich have more in common than Oscar winners portraying them on screen.
Add to the list Rita O'Grady, an upholsterer at a Ford assembly plant near London in the late 1960s. Her department is a sweatshop where the all-women crew strip to their underwear just to survive the heat. Males work more comfortably, for decidedly higher pay. Egged on by a sympathetic union rep and an unlikely ally close to management, Rita leads a strike that forces Ford to have a better idea of how to treat its female employees.
Rita is wonderfully played by Sally Hawkins, an actor who can't help but add silver linings to whatever dark clouds the script presents. Anyone recalling her Golden Globe performance as a chronic optimist in 2008's Happy-Go-Lucky, or her brief turn in the otherwise dour Never Let Me Go, knows what I mean. Rita has problems but the twinkle in Hawkins' eyes, the way she makes protest sound somewhat cheery, keeps Made in Dagenham from being a grim feminist procedural like North Country.
She's supported well by Bob Hoskins as the union rep happy to have Rita as a mouthpiece for gender issues he shouldn't discuss with management since he's a man. Rosamund Pike and Miranda Richardson are fine as well-heeled women with contrasting influence on the strike. Rita's co-workers are a colorful bunch, like a sorority plotting the ultimate homecoming prank.
You know where Made in Dagenham is headed, or else the movie wouldn't have been made. Screenwriter William Ivory tosses in needless subplots to delay the inevitable triumph, like a minor character fretting over her shell-shocked husband. Even that depressing news is received with Hawkins' crinkle-nosed adorability. When she's on camera, I'd swear the screen bends into a smile. B+ (BayWalk 20)
Steve Persall, Times film critic