One of the reasons I don't particularly like awards season is its mechanical predictability: the same niches get filled every year, whether it's the "stylistically brash film by a future-canonical director", the "smug indictment of these troubled times", the "underdog biopic", the "famous person biopic", the "studio-financed 'indie' that everybody likes because it is safe", the "biopic of a fake person", the "major literary adaptation", the "Clint Eastwood movie" (I could go on; you could go on; but let's not depress ourselves). Some of these are great. Many more of them are indiscriminately good: largely noteworthy for how utterly unnoteworthy they are.

Anyhow, our current subject is 2010's "easy, breezy British drama about the working class", following on 2008's Happy-Go-Lucky and last year's An Education; the latter film even shares a 1960s setting with the current Made in Dagenham - and all three feature Sally Hawkins, who at 34 is really to young to limit her career choices like this - as well as a tendency towards being awfully difficult to praise in any respect other than acting and costuming, though it's perfectly likable and pleasant and all that (put a gun to my head, and I'd say that An Education is better).

Fictionalising the real history of the summer of 1968, Made in Dagenham concerns the groundbreaking events that happened at Ford Motor Company's plant in Dagenham, just outside of London. Following the film's version of events: most of the plant's meager 187 female employees, working in the sewing machinist shop (they stitched together the seats for the cars), and incensed at a recent policy that re-graded their difficult work as "unskilled labor" - with the crummy pay that entailed - and in consequence staged a strike that initially began as just a pleasant "notice us, please?" to management and within days had become a nationwide crisis that nearly drove Ford of Britain out of business. In the movie, the strike is nudged into being by a kindly union activist, Albert Passingham (Bob Hoskins), whose memories of his own mother's hellish difficulty in finding enough money to keep him and his siblings alive has turned into a lifelong desire to fight for women's rights, but its heart and soul is the woman that Albert cunningly selects to join him at a key meeting the day before the strike between the union and management: Rita O'Grady (Hawkins), a straight-talking mother and wife with the quintessential Movie Working Class Brit refusal to curb her salty tongue when she knows better than the idiots around her. Rita makes the ideal figurehead for the strike - young, friendly, ballsy - and in just a few weeks, the Secretary of State for Employment, Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), has concocted a plan that would, in due course, result in the Equal Pay Act 1970, making the equal treatment of male and female workers the law of the land.

It's not quite "Norma Rae with a different Sally" - the emphasis is less on unionization, more on gender sociology - but that's the basic ballpark, and that is both the film's best and worst trait. Bluntly, you've seen this kind of rah-rah heroes of the downtrodden staring at the big corporation until the big corporation blinks story told, and told better, and only the not-insignificant fact that it's the kind of story that has a marked tendency to keep on working no matter how often it gets told that manages to shave some of the whiskers off of Made in Dagenham; that, and the relative paucity of English-language films about leftist solutions to working class problems, a hoary old genre in the '70s into the '80s that has all but died out as liberal message movies in America have drifted silently away from activism and towards pithy identity-politics homilies that congratulate rather than challenge. Even Made in Dagenham can hardly claim to be as fervidly pro-radicalism as Norma Rae or even Silkwood (and yes, I recognise that I am the millionth review to compare those two older films to the new one, only because it is exactly in their mold) - pretty much everybody agrees about the desirability of equality between the sexes, though not all people will be equally willing to concede that such equality is still a bit lacking in too many places (and the makers of Made in Dagenham, to judge from its triumphalism and the heightened speeches it gives all of the sympathetic characters, appear to be of the "we've solved all the problems forever already" camp).

The point being, I personally am not able to be entirely displeased at a movie in which there is found a scene wherein both the hero and the antagonist approvingly quote Marx.

But not being entirely displeased means that there's still an awful lot of shabbiness littering the movie, beginning with William Ivory's screenplay, in which normal conversations will veer with malicious speed and absolutely no forewarning into didactic rants where Theme and Message are stated in ringing tones that absolutely no human being would ever use casually. The actors do what the can with these clammy moments - Hawkins even turns a late confrontation with her husband (Daniel Mays), where subtext skips by text right en route to supertext, into a genuinely touching, uplifting moment, and Hoskins's entire performance is a matter of dredging something even remotely natural from the stiffest dialogue of the whole movie; it's a battle that no man could ever win, but Hoskins comes as close as I think anyone ever could, given the odds. Mostly, he's captivating because of this little trick he keeps doing, where he'll watch Rita doing something unexpected and piercing, and he has about 90% of a poker face hiding how ecstatic he is that his lil' firebrand is being more of a cage-rattler than he'd ever have imagined.

The acting, honestly, is pretty great all over: Hawkins isn't at her best, but she's more than good, and Miranda Richardson is just having fun as the rough woman-in-a-boys'-club politician. Better than either of them is Rosamund Pike, remaining just on the cusp separating Actress to Watch from Great Actress of Her Generation in a role that serves no discernible function except to point out, if it needs the pointing out, that intelligent rich women were second-class citizens too; like Hoskins, she manages to do things with the role that are not remotely suggested by the things she is given to do and say. A number of fine, mostly unknown actors fill out the edges; my personal favorites were Andrew Riseborough and Geraldine James, but this is almost entirely the Hawkins hour with only limited room for guests.

Beyond the cast, Made in Dagenham is at best functional: Nigel Cole, best known for the strained quirky comedies Saving Grace and Calendar Girls*, directs with that timeless style known as "Get the actors' bodies in frame", though he, or the script, indulges in some positively unforgivable use of weather as metaphor. John de Borman shoots the whole thing with a foggy desaturation that kind of gives it a period look that's kind of interesting, and also kind of gives on eyestrain. The one thing the film absolutely has going for it, visually: Louise Stjernsward's costumes, a dynamite blend of being accurate to the period, narratively appropriate in a way you'd never expect from a middling film about union politics, and just damn fun to look at.

It goes down easy, I guess; it doesn't try to do more, so it doesn't fail at anything. But despite telling an interesting story in a slick way (too slick, undoubtedly, but my knowledge of 1960s British labor struggles is effectively nonexistent, so I shouldn't judge), Made in Dagenham is simply too skimpy on anything to be more than a modest diversion, being dazzled by some great actors strutting their stuff in between running errands or doing whatever else goes on in your busy life. The story of a watershed moment in 20th Century gender politics deserves better, but at least it got out there at all.