Geraldine James and Sally Hawkins in Made in Dagenham

Inspired by real life events, Made in Dagenham is a predictable but likable and entertaining crowd-pleaser – a lightly comic Norma Rae without the weighty sense self-importance.

It’s 1968 and the Dagenham Ford plant employs 55,000 English workers, 187 of whom are women who make a fraction of the wages made by their similarly skilled male counterparts. One of those women is Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins), a blue-collar mother who works in the plant sewing upholstery. Despite resistance from her husband, her employers, the government and even the union that is supposed to be advancing her interests, Rita and her female co-workers become an unexpected but determined rallying point for the equal pay for women movement.

A movie like this depends heavily on its cast and Made in Dagenham’s sparkles. Hawkins is terrific as Rita. She’s wholly believable as a modest working-class mum juggling the immediate needs of her family with the loftier principles of basic fairness. The unlikeliness of her heroism makes her all the more appealing.

Hawkins is matched beat for beat by a wonderful supporting cast including Bob Hoskins as Rita’s supportive union representative; Miranda Richardson as the tough labor secretary who sympathizes with Rita’s cause but realizes the country is in no economic shape to be pushing around a major employer; and Rosamund Pike as the boss’s dignified wife who identifies with Rita even though the two women are of totally different classes.

Wrapping story and performances in a nice late-60’s bow, the film’s careful production design lends an air of authenticity that helps remind you we’re looking at a real life struggle that happened a mere 40 years ago. The look is reinforced by some familiar but not too obvious period pop songs from the likes of Desmond Dekker, Small Faces, Traffic and others. They not only evoke a time and a place, they give the film a nice energy when it’s needed.

There are few surprises in Made in Dagenham, even if you don’t know how real history worked itself out, but sometimes there is a comfort in familiarity and this is one of those occasions. The British seem to have a knack for crowd-pleasers that don’t pander to their audience. There’s a dry self-effacing humor and a grounding matter of fact realism that keeps them from becoming too sentimental. Or maybe it’s just the accents. Either way Made in Dagenham is an agreeable winner.

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