Made in Dagenham delivers assembly line drama

Inspiring film about factory girls ends up with uninspired message

The heroines of the English docudrama Made in Dagenham could be the miniskirted, work-stopping stepdaughters of Rosie the Riveter. Rosie served as a catch-all nickname for women who flooded the workforce — particularly the blue-collar professions — while American enlisted men served overseas during World War II. J. Howard Miller's painting "We Can Do It!" provides the era's most empowering icon of a female laborer flexing her bicep.

Set in 1968, Made in Dagenham opens with a comparable image of strength and sexuality. Female sewing machinists arrive at the Ford assembly plant in the East London suburb of Dagenham. Chatting all the while, the women file into their workspace, go to their sewing machines and proceed to take off their jackets or blouses. Some of them choose to sew seat covers in their brassieres or slips, presumably for the freedom of movement and to alleviate the heat. When a male employee enters the floor, someone shouts "Man!" and they casually cover themselves, frequently while catcalling the interloper.

Despite their command over their feminine fiefdom, the female machinists endure second-class status at the plant, which employs thousands of men but only 187 women. Made in Dagenham chronicles the social changes surrounding the machinists' highly publicized 1968 strike. Despite its vivacious cast, the film itself feels like an assembly-line product.

Bob Hoskins plays Albert, the women's union organizer, who serves as a kind of beloved, avuncular Poppa Bear to the Dagenham women. When the women protest their classification as "unskilled workers" despite their exacting craftsmanship, Albert arranges a meeting with management. He enlists working mom Rita O'Grady (Sally Hawkins) to attend, primarily to convey strength in numbers. Rather than let chauvinistic union boss Monty (Kenneth Cranham) speak for the women, Rita interjects her point of view and increasingly seizes a leadership role in the union.

Initially the women go on a one-day strike. When management refuses to take their concerns seriously, Rita escalates their action, staging a full-scale walkout until Ford guarantees equal pay for equal work.

Director Nigel Cole never strays far from the template for uplifting underdog films and portrays Rita as a martyr to social progress. Hawkins' husky voice and emotional transparency convey Rita's role as an ordinary woman drafted as a shaper of history. Despite her credible performance, Dagenham's script relies on speeches and plot twists that feel unnecessarily manipulative, as if real life didn't jerk enough tears.

Ford recently turned down a U.S. government bailout and has weathered enormous financial challenges, so it's striking to see a film set 40 years ago that portrays the company as the monolithic embodiment of sexist capitalism. In one respect, Made in Dagenham succeeds too well: Since women so clearly deserve equal pay for equal work, Rita and the strikers tend to preach to the contemporary converted. The film's ultimate message seems little more than "You've come a long way, baby," even though it's stylistically assured enough to support a more complex view of social change.