THE BLOG
11/19/2010 02:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Made in Dagenham : Union Spirit, Winning Performances

I am partial to British films with ensemble casts tapped from UK's dazzling pool of film, theater, and BBC television talent with a Yank or two thrown in. In the Loop, An Education, and Four Weddings and A Funeral are a few examples. With a cast that boasts Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky, An Education), Miranda Richardson (The Crying Game, Damage), Bob Hoskins (Mona Lisa, Mermaids), Geraldine James (The Jewel in the Crown, The Luzkin Defense), Rosamund Pike (An Education, The Libertine), Rupert Graves (Damage, A Handful of Dust) and others, director Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls) was more than well equipped to channel the turbulent, late 60s with Made in Dagenham. The Yank, by the way, is Richard Schiff, best known for playing Toby Ziegler in the much missed U.S. TV series The West Wing.

The plot and flavor of the film may remind Americans of Sally Field's Oscar-winning performance in Norma Rae (1979). This time the Sally is Sally Hawkins who plays Rita O'Grady, a plucky wife and mother of two who also works in Ford Motor Company's sweltering hot, rickety Dagenham factory along with 186 other female workers. Rita and Connie (Geraldine James) the shop steward find themselves taking a day off from work (with pay) to lunch with union organizers who will meet with Ford's top brass to discuss recent -- entirely unfair and ultimately sexist -- pay cuts.

The bogus meeting suddenly becomes relevant and infused with vigor when Rita cries foul (British translation: "bollocks!"). To everyone's surprise, Rita, Connie, Albert (Bob Hoskins) their union rep, and the entire shop of women, teens to grannies, are thrust into a maelstrom because sewing car seat upholstery -- highly specialized and skilled work -- has been reclassified as "unskilled labor." The good-natured, hardworking women have put up with a leaky roof, removing clothing to cope in the sweatshop, and other Dickensian working conditions for too long, while the men make more money and work in the plant's more modern facility. They will plan a job action unless their skill level is reinstated, and they receive full pay parity with the male laborers.

Enter Lisa (Rosamund Pike) the upper-class, Cambridge-educated mother of a student at Rita's son's school where both boys have been treated sadistically by a pompous teacher. They join forces and get rid of him, which helps fuel Rita's resolve to speak truth to power. Later we discover that Lisa is also the wife of Peter Hopkins (Rupert Graves, no longer baby-faced, but an actor with salt-and-pepper hair), a Ford exec who is working with Robert Tooley (Richard Schiff), an American pit-bull who conspire to squelch the union spirit.

Connie and Rita take the group of seamstresses out on full strike with a campaign that expands to under-paid female laborers throughout the union. Momentum increases with regular media coverage and the sympathies of the first woman Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson) -- who nearly steals the film.

Not to spoil the ending of this film based on a true story, suffice it to say that certain demands settle themselves and related landmark legislation is enacted two years later.

The filmmakers have a strong grasp of the period and evoke it with nostalgic aplomb in music, sets, and with colorful costumes and make up, especially, killer eyeliner (a la Streisand circa 1968).

The film is not overly complex, but hits the requisite emotional notes. When you find a group of, often cynical, critics applauding at the end of a screening, you know you've stumbled upon a film whose verve and charm are contagious.

Opens Friday, November 19 in NYC and LA.