It’s a requirement, apparently, for any breakthrough British actress to log hours in one of the nation’s stuffy period dramas. But you’d expect Sally Hawkins, the winningly gawky star of Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, to transcend the powerful lameness of Made in Dagenham, a by-the-books dramatization of the 1968 sewing machinists strike that resulted in England’s Equal Pay Act of 1970. Sadly, no—despite retaining her unpolished mien and toothy smiles, Hawkins only succeeds in making a generic history lesson feel slightly less like medicine.
Hawkins plays Rita O’Grady, one of the 168 women with towering coifs sewing seat covers at Ford’s Dagenham plant for a drastically gender-gapped paycheck. Encouraged by her supervisor (Bob Hoskins), Rita finds her social consciousness unexpectedly awakened and sets about transforming herself and those around her from working-class birds to proto-Norma Raes. Soon, Rita is leading an epic strike while holding her own against officials both ineffectual (Rupert Graves’ exec) and hiss-worthy (The West Wing’s Richard Schiff).
Painted in the broad strokes of the issue film, Made in Dagenham at least acknowledges the collateral damage the strike incurs. Eventually the whole factory has to shut down, crippling the East London suburb and turning the men on the women. But it mostly leans on a retro notion of girl power—the kind of shtick Sarah Palin supporters think she’s pulling off—in which women can be political, but gosh, it doesn’t mean you have to be dress bad.
While Hawkins is unable to magically transform this into something deeper than rah-rah feminism 101, both Rosamund Pike, as Graves’ well-educated and rebellious wife, and Miranda Richardson, as Secretary of State Barbara Castle, sneak in some brief excellence. The latter offers a master class in how to chew someone out while just barely maintaining one’s cool—a moment Made in Dagenham doesn’t deserve, but desperately needs.