Monday, 22 September 2014
Time heals, and with time - in the UK at least - everything gets turned into genial light comedy-drama. The miners' strike, that conflict that so divided the nation back in 1984, this month bequeathes to cinemas Billy Elliot: The Musical, "beamed live from London's West End" with songs by Elton John, and Pride, another would-be uplifter telling of the unlikely but true alliance that formed between a group of London-based gay activists and a coal-hardened Welsh mining community at the epicentre of the conflict. This BBC-BFI collaboration, written by Stephen Beresford and directed by Matthew Warchus, does feel like a broadening out of a TV scenario - what would happen, say, if you took that Little Britain sketch, kept the village, and suddenly flooded it with gays, or as many gays as a mid-range British feature can reasonably squeeze into the back of a clapped-out minibus.
Pride's foremost achievement is to portray gay and lesbian activism in such a way as not to scare off those greyhairs who happened across the trailer when it screened before The Hundred-Foot Journey; in this respect, it's a marked progression from the climax of Mamma Mia!, with its farcically token and arbitrary coming out. The fundraising group known as Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners are here represented by a mix of fresh faces (Ben Schnetzer as megaphone-wielding leader Mark Ashton, George MacKay as the closeted Joe, a sparky Faye Marsay as a lone lesbian presence) who prove no more militant than, say, Rylan Clark was on X Factor, and reliable older hands (This is England's Joe Gilgun, Dominic West in a blonde perm as a John Barrowman-like life-and-soul-of-the-party figure) who shore up the dramatic sequences: as Gethin, the deracinated Welsh owner of the bookshop where this movement begins, Andrew Scott reprises his semi-miraculous work in March's The Stag by locating subtly affecting notes within the broadest of writing.
Theatre veteran Warchus, whose sole previous screen credit came with 1999's tepid Sam Shepard adaptation Simpatico, has fun with his relatively large ensemble cast. Upon the group's arrival in the valleys, the LGSM minibus will be met by a quiet Bill Nighy - standing bolt upright in the kitchens of the local working man's club, clutching a tiny half-pint glass in the film's single funniest image - and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, Imelda Staunton as (no surprises) a blowsy, no-nonsense matriarch who seems to have been waiting her whole life to brandish a sex toy for general amusement. She will of course get her chance - it's that kind of movie - and as the two factions eye one another up nervously, laughs will be had, and songs, and dance numbers, of the kind that can knit large audiences together, just as they surely did these diverse hetero/homo worlds in real life as the strike played itself out.
But the blood, the anger and the tears that marked this lamentable moment in British social and political history have been all but filtered out in the journey through the modern Britfilm cookiecutter. Beresford's police are a largely faceless presence, sneering from the sidelines; any homophobia in the film is observed in passing, or reported secondhand; whenever a window is put through out of ignorance or hatred, Warchus has the option of cutting over to a troupe of fierce Welsh housewives rallying themselves to fight back. It may be indicative of the conservatism of the moment, but Margaret Thatcher is kept out of the picture almost altogether, whether out of a reluctance to speak ill of the dead, or lest it put off exactly those Middle Englanders the film is seeking to pull in, or because this essentially good-natured film simply can't even begin to countenance the cruelty she wrought upon these communities.
Whatever the reason, Pride is rigged towards triumph rather than defeat, and while its tactics have apparently proved effective - reports claim some screenings have climaxed with the audience clapping it off the screen - I found them an obstacle to complete enjoyment. For, despite the enthusiastic support of groups such as the LGSM, the miners were brutally defeated, the beginning of a widespread dismantling of traditional industry that has crippled large parts of the country. In these cases, pride - a sorely wounded pride - was often all the communities involved had left to cling to, and there's a degree of desperation in the way Beresford attempts to jolly every other scene up with a joke or dance number, and thereby turn these rags and tatters into some kind of a technicolor dreamcoat.
In the absence of any flesh-and-blood antagonist (as a jolting Russell Tovey cameo suggests, AIDS is the closest the film has to a villain), the whole film is premised on an opposition - gay activists versus straight miners - which is not only false, but far too easily resolved: you'd have to be a bit of a sucker to keep falling for the endless rousing climaxes this opposition generates. Pride forsakes the major conflict of this moment - establishment versus workers - in favour of amplifying a minor conflict between two groups who, as portrayed here, were almost always on the same page, and as they work their minor differences out, we're meant to leap to our feet and cheer unreservedly, even as an unseen third party beats them both down into the ground. (In twenty years' time, someone will make a romcom about Scottish independence with MacKay and Freya Mavor as rival Yes/No campaigners who, after various humdrum niggles, achieve a union of their own. Again, David Cameron will be seen only briefly, in old TV clips, and the real lesson will be missed.)
Late on, one character hands another a badge carrying the legend "I am discretely gay", clearly something of a badge of honour for a film that never dares to show its characters going beyond first base. There is, unarguably, much to cheer in the way Pride busses a half-dozen gay, lesbian and working-class stories into the multiplex, but it's finally just too discreet on any number of issues - and while I'd love to agree with my cheerleading colleagues, for whom Warchus's film may well have served as a reminder of the decent, liberal-minded Britain waiting for them at the end of their Cannes jollies, I think I'm more inclined to side with the public, who've so far proved wary of turning the film into the next Full Monty, and may have seen this trick pulled too many times before with far less deserving stories. It remains a positive thing to hear that - whether miner or Village Person - we're all the same beneath our hard hats, but I sometimes think we've never looked more alike, more indistinguishable, than we do when we see ourselves in certain light British comedy-dramas.
Pride is now showing in cinemas nationwide. Pride: The Musical - Live! is imminent.