Does that hand-lettered banner hoisted by the women picketing the Ford plant really say, "We Want Sex"?

Made in Dagenham, a union fairy tale set in 1968 in the factory district outside London, is customized to the high-beam grin of Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky).

The impish brunet, resembling a cross between Rita Tushingham and Sandra Bullock, plays a Ford worker floored to learn that her company considers her an unskilled worker and that she gets only a fraction of what Ford gives men at her pay grade.

This news transforms the mild-mannered wife and mother of two into the leader of a walkout that will change Britain's labor laws.

That hand-lettered banner she carries? When fully extended, it reads: "We Want Sex Equality."

The fact-based Dagenham, a story of labor triumph in an era of labor pain, is fueled by Hawkins. Her Rita is a composite of several real-life workers, their stories attractively embroidered for maximum inspirational effect and social impact.

Unlike Norma Rae, Rita does not have to unionize her shop. And Rita's fight for equal pay will have national repercussions, unifying women from all walks of life.

In this upbeat story, directed by Nigel Cole, Rita finds her voice when management condescends to her.

From uneven lengths of leather and without a template, Rita and sister seamstresses stitch seat covers that give Ford Cortina interiors their oomph.

Because Rita is so well-liked, Albert (jolly Bob Hoskins), her shop steward, invites her to represent her union sisters at a meeting with management, which wants to reduce the women's pay grade from semiskilled to unskilled. The suits resist the idea that it takes sexpertise to make seamless upholstery out of scraps.

Similarly Cole, who previously directed Calendar Girls, makes a seamless movie from the scraps of prior trade-union comedies such as The Pajama Game.

To the extent that this mostly sunny excursion succeeds, it's due to the irrepressible Hawkins. Like Holly Hunter and Reese Witherspoon - or one of those toys that bounce back up when you smack them down - Hawkins is a small figure with outsize moxie. To watch Hawkins is to be electrified by her energy.

Did Dagenham really need to show that Rita galvanized feminists across class lines? Probably not. Still, it's nice to see Rosamund Pike (as the Oxford-educated wife of a Ford exec) and Miranda Richardson (as first secretary of state) cheer on Rita, the little engine that did.EndText