Sally Hawkins impressed me immeasurably in “Never Let Me Go,” Mark Romanek’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s bestselling novel, which left me cold with its snow-globe detail that sealed out almost any sense of genuine emotion. The faint hint of humanity stirring in the film’s attempt to shake that world came from Hawkins, as a schoolteacher who calls out the inhumanity of the story’s utopian ideals. She allows us to see the horror and expresses the outrage she has invoked in us. Hawkins has contradicted all sense of British stiff-upper lip propriety, since she broke through with her insanely positive performance in “Happy Go Lucky,” which was so painfully alive that it hurt to watch her character smile through all of life’s indignities.
And now, Hawkins goes “Norma Rae.” That’s likely how “Made in Dagenham” will be marketed to American audiences and this unfamiliar story about a group of British women working for a United Kingdom division of Ford who strike in an effort to secure equal pay during the late-1960s has all of the hallmarks of labor movement films, but Hawkins as Rita O’Grady isn’t simply working in Sally Fields mode. She’s tapping the same vein we’ve come to expect from her; the one where the happiness and the hurt run together and the joys and pain of life co-exist in the same moment. That may be the best definition of the daily grind.
O’Grady, whose husband also works for Ford in a similar factory job that pays more, is not a born protester or a typical feminist icon. She’s a working woman trying to keep her family together and there’s never a moment when audiences will mistake her for anything or anyone else, even when the fledgling movement gains momentum and eventually earns a meeting with Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), the government’s labor secretary.
Director Nigel Cole (“Calendar Girls”) is known for stacking the deck, in terms of inspiring us to stand up and cheer for his common underdogs and here, besides Hawkins, he’s got an ace-in-the-hole in Bob Hoskins as Albert Passingham, the floor manager of O’Grady’s team of female workers and the labor representative who guides her during engagements with both management and the union’s administrators. Hoskins buries his usual fiery explosiveness and projects the understanding of a man who grew up watching his own mother work hard for less than equal pay.
That distinction, which dials down the political outrage and instead focuses on the personal and individual anecdotes, makes “Dagenham” feel like a movement of and about people and not just characters chanting slogans. Hawkins may not wrestle the spotlight from drama queens and the acting aristocracy of the screen, but she proves that sometimes, even an Everywoman deserves some measure of attention.