Nothing less than equal rights for women, Nigel Cole’s “Norma Rae from the UK” suggests. It’s a cheeky and uplifting “inspired-by-a-true-story” tale that overcomes its predictability with sparkling performances, a dash of wit and a lot of heart.
Sally Hawkins (“Happy-Go-Lucky”) plays Rita O’Grady, just another seamstress classified as an “unskilled” machinist at Ford’s gigantic Dagenham car factory. There’s no air conditioning, so the women who stitch together seat-covers often doff their blouses as they sit and sweat. The roof leaks when it rains. And the 187 women at Dagenham are paid a small fraction of what the men at the plant earn.
But it’s 1968, and more than just hemlines are up in Britain. Revolution is in the air all over the world, with street protests dominating the news. The union bosses may quote Marx and call each other comrade, but sexism is alive and well in that hierarchy. A woman (Miranda Richardson) may be Secretary of State, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t patronized and condescended to, just like every other working woman in the UK.
The ladies in the unions have a union ally — Bert — a middle man with sympathy for their plight and an eye on the prize. He’s played by Bob Hoskins with a twinkle that suggests mischief. So when he quotes Marx, he’s on the mark as far as “the girls” are concerned.
“Progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex.”
The script suggests the class war that the upper classes were waging against workers when Rita is bullied by a cruel teacher she wants to stop caning her son. And as you might expect, the plucky Hawkins is perfectly cast as a timid woman who rises up when she realizes she’s had enough.
“We refuse to be second class!” she fumes. “EVERYBODY OUT!” And with that, the under-estimated women of Dagenham do what nobody thought they would — they go on strike. And without seat covers, a car isn’t exactly finished, is it?
Rosamund Pike gives a poignant edge to an upper class mom who lives, vicariously, on Rita’s brand of social upheaval. Daniel Mays plays Rita’s supportive but confused husband, put out of work when the entire plant closes down. Geraldine James makes a vivid impression as a co-worker and union rep who enthusiastically steps aside when Rita gets her back up. Rupert Graves and Richard Schiff are hatefully unsympathetic Ford bosses.
William Ivory’s script gives each and every one of them a big scene — Richardson, flinty and fiery, Pike, touchingly showing the bonds of sex are stronger than class, Schiff (of TV’s “The West Wing”) scary. John Sessions of “Tamara Drewe” makes a wonderfully waffling Prime Minister Harold Wilson, and Danny Huston rages, unseen, as the Ford honcho who chews his underlings out over this labor stoppage by phone, profanities laced with the odd slur — “commie.”
The tale’s overly familiar tropes — dissent in the ranks, the family life strained by the wife’s newfound militancy and responsibility — don’t spoil the movie, any more than the accents so thick they’ll make many Americans will wish for subtitles.
And Hawkins, shining in a part that could not be more different from her wounded, giggling Golden Globe winning turn in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” dazzles, suggesting a quietly sizzling fuse that finally reaches its end, when she and all of British womanhood realize that they’re as mad as hell, and they’re not going to take this anymore.
They didn’t. And the story of what they “Made in Dagenham” is one of the most entertaining history lessons you could ever hope to sit through.
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Miranda Richardson, Bob Hoskins, Richard Schiff
Director: Nigel Cole
Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes
Rating: R for language and brief sexuality.