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Taking a stand; Uplifting film focuses on female autoworkers

Small pink plastic hoops ringed with tiny clothespins for drying hosiery hang outside working class apartments in "Made in Dagenham," just one of the many whimsical details that make this uplifting little movie about a 1968 autoworkers' strike come alive.

Add a nostalgic 1960s pop soundtrack -- "Wooly Bully," "Green Tambourine" and especially Desmond Dekker's reggae hit "The Israelites" -- and director Nigel Cole puts us smack into one front in the earlier battle for equal rights.

It is a most unlikely group of warriors -- 187 female machinists whose jobs at a Ford plant in Dagenham, England, were downgraded from "semi-skilled" to "unskilled" walked out.

The "girls," as all grown women were called back then, didn't plan on changing the world. They just wanted a raise, back to a wage that would still be a fraction of the men's pay.

Ford's response was not only insulting, it was dismissive. And, as it turned out, it was the wrong move at exactly the wrong time.

Women, who until then willingly worked in sweatshop conditions, stripping down to bras and slips for work rather than demanding proper ventilation or even a roof that didn't leak, had had enough.

Leading the charge is Rita O'Grady (Sally Hawkins), a young mother whose husband also works for Ford and who initially is a calm voice for fairness and cooperation. Then she gets a taste of how plant management really feels about its female workforce.

Urged on by a feminist union rep played with impish verve by Bob Hoskins, raised by his hardworking, underpaid single Mum, Rita blossoms into full Norma Rae activism, taking on not only the company but the union's own bigwigs and, eventually, the British government. Behind her stand every single one of her co-workers.

"Made in Dagenham" works its magic not with special effects or big-name stars, but with a tight, entertaining story enhanced by history and brought to full bloom with outstanding performances.

Hawkins, winner of a Golden Globe and nominated for an Oscar for her role in "Happy-Go-Lucky" in 2008, plays Rita as a perfectly human combination of strength and sensitivity. Her belief in the cause of equal pay for women becomes so much a part of her fiber that she couldn't give it up if she tried.

Miranda Richardson plays Barbara Castle, a Labour Party leader and the first woman in the English Cabinet, under Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

The film is packed with moments -- funny, angry and loving -- that crystallize the times, politics and the moment in history. There was a time when an ad for a movie like "Made in Dagenham" would have included the line "It has audiences cheering!" Scrape away the hyperbole, and there you are.




3 stars (out of 4)    

CAST: Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Daniel Mays, Miranda Richardson    

DIRECTOR: Nigel Cole    

RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes    

RATING: R for language and brief sexuality.    

THE LOWDOWN: Women workers strike for equal pay at Ford's Dagenham plant in Great Britain in 1968.