RATING |

A top year for tough gals wraps up with "Made in Dagenham," the story of a British autoworker who brought about equal pay for women in the '60s.

It's the fact-based story of Rita O'Grady (Sally Hawkins), one of 200-odd seamstresses at a suburban London Ford factory who revolt when penny-pinching managers attempt to reclassify their work as unskilled.

Prodded by a sympathetic union leader (Bob Hoskins), O'Grady becomes the leader of an equal-pay movement that mightily disturbs the peace - at Ford, which threatens to leave England; at the factory, where unsympathetic men are forced to walk out in sympathy; at the highest levels of British government; and in O'Grady's own home, where her blue-collar husband is forced to go Mr. Mom while his wife is off on labor business.

The struggle is more about gender than labor - it's ingrained sexism within O'Grady's own union that presents her greatest challenge.

Her most helpful ally runs the government office that mediates labor disputes - Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), who is herself subject to the daily outrage of not being taken seriously.

Hawkins, Richardson, Hoskins - it's the usual all-star lineup of British pros. Rosamund Pike pops up as an upper-class school-parent acquaintance of O'Grady, and a woman who turns out to be married to - world's shortest drum roll - Ford's top factory exec.

This all leads to a completely un-credible speech in which Pike's character unburdens herself to O'Grady about her empty life as a housewife and social ornament, and her wasted Cambridge education.

There isn't a moment in "Made in Dagenham" that doesn't feel pitched to commercial considerations. It's as much a piece of pop as the U.K. top 40 that comprises the soundtrack. It's the cast that puts it over.

Underneath the slick surface there is the nagging feeling that the real O'Grady was a more-formidible, less-accidental figure.

"Dagenham" positions her as a circumstantial activist, minding her own business when she's chosen to represent the shop women, hesitant about making her feelings known to union and company bosses, relieved when it's all over to get back to the unwashed dishes in the sink.

The idea that she might have deep-rooted ideas about labor, gender, class and a disposition to fight over them - that's a job the movie bosses reserve mainly for men.