Sally Hawkins cruises into her new movie the same way she did her breakthrough, Happy-Go-Lucky: on a bicycle, wearing a sunny smile. Suffused with an aggressively lovely palette of pinks and yellows, Made in Dagenham must be the most cheerful story about a labor strike ever committed to celluloid. The subject, a true-life one, is worker unrest at a British Ford car plant in 1968. Rita O'Grady (Hawkins) and her female coworkers toil on the sweltering sewing floor, stitching upholstery and stripping down to their skivvies to the embarrassment of paternal union organizer, Albert (Hoskins). But when corporate higher-ups recategorize the women as "unskilled," an urge for justice grows in Rita, triggering many a scene of taken-aback bosses, and, eventually, England's Equal Pay Act of 1970.
Go ahead and precringe at some of the dramatic shorthand intended to make this go down easy: Factory workers are rarely this svelte and fashionable, plus Dagenham's conservative husbands, such as Rita's Eddie (Mays), can't have been so persuadable. Still, the sneakily subversive power of the tale is undeniable. Hollywood will not be making a picture about a successful labor strike any time soon; perhaps it took the director of the candy-colored Calendar Girls to stealthily mount a triumphant piece of agitprop. (What he's gotten away with here is quite bold, a master class in peppy distraction; this should be required viewing for all political filmmakers.) The Dagenham sisterhood, rooted in justice and ideology, is positively refreshing, with a sweet piece of symmetry in Miranda Richardson's cabinet minister combating sexism in her own office. It's a film made to inspire, not lecture.
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