What working women want, according to Rita OGrady, the indefatigable Norma Rae of Nigel Coles entertaining new film, is simple: Rights, not privileges. Its that easy.But the year is 1968, the boss is the mighty Ford Motor Co., and the rule of the working world is that women make less money than men. And so if you happen to be one of the 187 female machinists stitching together seat covers at Fords factory in working-class Dagenham, England, you are not expected to register much displeasure when your status is downgraded from skilled to unskilled to save the company money. You are supposed to understand and accept that the 55,000 male workers toiling on the same grounds are going to be paid and valued more than you. But this way of thinking doesnt sit well with plucky Rita (Sally Hawkins of Never Let Me Go and Mike Leighs Happy-Go-Lucky). Spurred by a cheekily feminist supervisor (Bob Hoskins) who shrewdly sees the makings of a leader behind her bright smile, Rita agrees to accompany him to a meeting with the shops union boss. And when the union leaders reveal themselves as all too willing to ignore the womens grievances to appease management, Rita leads her sisters out on strike, first for a day to protest the downgrade, then on an all-out walkout demanding equal pay. Based on the real-life strike by the Dagenham machinists some of whom appear over the closing credits the film deftly captures the era; the details of the costumes alone are worth marveling over. But Nigel Cole ( Calendar Girls) clearly indicates that while some of these women may copy the styles of Carnaby Street, theyre far from frivolous. They have jobs for practical, not idealistic, reasons. Ritas genial husband Eddie (Daniel Mays), for example, also works at the Ford factory; with two kids, they need two salaries to pay the bills on their council flat. Ritas best mate Connie (Geraldine James) needs her job because her husband, psychologically damaged in World War II, cant work. The younger, single, fashion-crazy women need to pay their rent and for their hot pants. Cole keeps the tone mostly light (one recurring funny bit involves the womens stripping down to their bras upon entering the leaky, poorly ventilated workplace and shouting MAN! when a guy dares to enter). The situation grows more grim, though, when Ford runs out of seat covers and shuts down the plant, thus putting the men out of work, too. Suddenly the guys who found the womens strike amusing are furious. The lengthening strike has ill effects on Rita and Eddies usual good rapport, too, but Rita has found her voice in this unexpected struggle for social justice, and she isnt ready to give in quietly. Made in Dagenham gamely depicts an interesting bit of history, but its real message is a matter of principle.
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Daniel Mays, Miranda Richardson.
Director: Nigel Cole.
Writer: William Ivory.
Producer: Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley.
A Sony Pictures Classics studios release. Running time: 113 minutes. Language, brief sexuality. Playing at: area theaters.