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Made in Dagenham -- Film Review

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TORONTO -- The real-life tale of a group of female machinists who took on the Ford Motor Co. in England and earned equal pay for women gets a rousing and entertaining telling in Nigel Cole's crowd-pleasing "Made in Dagenham."

Sally Field won an Oscar in 1979 playing a reluctant union activist in Martin Ritt's "Norma Rae," and history might repeat itself with Sally Hawkins as Rita O'Grady, the leader of 187 women who went on strike against the auto giant during the late 1960s.

Like Cole's "Calendar Girls," it's a story about no-nonsense women doing their bit for the right cause, and, especially in these tough economic times, it should strike a rich seam of rewards from audiences everywhere.

Period authenticity is nailed within the film's sunny design and sharply drawn characters, with the U.K.'s class structure and male-oriented industries depicted without fuss. It was a simple fact that women were required to do the same work as men but for far less pay. When the machinists at Ford's huge plant in Dagenham, near London, objected to being classified as nonskilled workers in order to keep their wages down, they not only objected but also took action with game-changing impact.

Hawkins plays one of the "girls" whose husband, Eddie (Daniel Mays), also works at the plant. When shop steward Connie (Geraldine James) finds taking care of her war-wounded husband (Roger Lloyd-Pack) too much, she is glad to hand things over to Rita.

Bob Hoskins plays a wise old union hand whose affection for the hard-working women in his family drives him to support the women's struggle. Kenneth Cranham is the plant's union chief, who usually is willing to get into bed with management so long as peace is maintained.

Andrea Riseborough and Jaime Winstone are among the feistier women at the plant, and Rosamund Pike plays a posh, educated woman whose marriage to a Ford executive (Rupert Graves) has turned her into a reluctant housewife but not made her lose her drive.

Miranda Richardson has a rare old time as the redheaded and fiercely political Barbara Castle, the Labour minister in charge of employment who rebelled against not only Ford but also her own Prime Minister Harold Wilson (John Sessions).

Screenwriter William Ivory gives just enough backstory to provide heft for the characters, and Cole draws sprightly performances from the cast without making the women into caricatures. Hopkins plays in a minor key satisfyingly, and Hawkins is as upbeat as she was in "Happy-Go-Lucky" but with a wariness and steeliness that should win over those who were put off with the chatter of the teacher she played in that film.

Andrew McAlpine's production design and John de Borman's cinematography combine to depict the era without resorting to cliche, and David Arnold provides an apt score that never tries to milk the situation.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production: Number 9 Films
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Andrea Riseborough, Geraldine James, Rosamund Pike, Miranda Richardson
Director: Nigel Cole
Screenwriter: William Ivory
Producer: Stephen Wooley, Elizabeth Karlsen
Director of photography: John de Borman
Production designer: Andrew McAlpine
Music: David Arnold
Costume designer: Louise Stjernsward
Editor: Michael Parker
No rating, running time 113 minutes