Film of the Week: Pride
Matthew Warchus’s Pride isn’t actually a musical, but it belongs to a strain of British films that I think of as “nearly political musicals.” That is, they’re nearly musicals—and if you wanted to be disparaging, you could write them off as nearly political. I’m thinking of 1996’s Brassed Off and 2000’s Billy Elliot (both set against the background of the 1984-85 U.K. miners’ strike), 1997’s The Full Monty (about redundant steelworkers), and 2010’s Made in Dagenham (women workers for equal pay at Ford in the Sixties). These all tell British working-class stories and use a populist feel-good approach, and lashings of music, to sugar the pill of their political content. But then, that perhaps reflects the way that in the U.K. until fairly recently, pop music was a genuine social glue.
You could regard them as “jukebox Loach”—and Ken Loach’s own work, since the Nineties, has tended to be similarly schematic in its insistence on conveying an upbeat message. Not surprisingly, several of these movies have spawned cheerful, big-night-out stage shows: after the hugely successful Billy Elliot the Musical, The Full Monty became a live hen-night staple of London’s West End, while a musical Made in Dagenham premieres soon in London, with Gemma Arterton in the lead.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Pride yielded a similar spin-off before too long; indeed, Warchus has his own formidable stage musical chops, having directed the massively successful Matilda. The cheerfully functional Pride isn’t that stimulating as a piece of cinema, though thankfully it’s livelier than Warchus’s clunky Sam Shepard adaptation Simpatico (99). Still, it’s an entirely laudable piece of work, and—regrettably—a striking anomaly given the current stultified, divisive, and reactionary state of British political culture.
Pride is another story of the miners’ strike—an episode in which Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, having announced widespread pit closures, waged a punitive war on the National Union of Miners (and beyond it, on Britain’s unions in general), in the process destroying not only Britain’s coal industry and wrecking the livelihood of many communities, as well as contributing hugely to the long-term demoralization of the British left. Even so, although the strike ended in bitter defeat for the miners, an important aspect of it was that it mobilized, however briefly, a powerful sense of left-wing solidarity. That’s what Pride is about. Written by playwright Stephen Beresford and dramatizing the story of several real-life characters, the film covers the activities of a group named Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) and its coming together with a mining community in South Wales’ Dulais Valley. The group mustered support for the miners, raised funds, and just as importantly, says the film, built bridges between communities that you might not have expected to have much in common.
Pride focuses on the LGSM organizers, a small committed group based at the Gay’s the Word bookshop in central London: among them, impassioned young activist Mark (Ben Schnetzer)—based on the late Mark Ashton—and a novice in the gay community, shy, closeted young suburbanite Joe (George Mackay). Joe is a little too obviously pitched as our non-threatening entrée into the world of gay activism: cautiously turning up at a Gay Pride rally, he demurs about holding up a banner he’s passed (“I don’t want to be too visible”) only to find that it reads: “Queers—Better Blatant Than Latent.” A bewildered Joe finds himself surrounded by radicals and eccentrics, from militant lesbian Stella (Karina Fernandez) to the LGSM’s resident old-school theatrical type Jonathan (Dominic West); but the character’s cheerful, fascinated blandness will carry through mainstream viewers who might be resistant to either the film’s sexual or left-wing politics.
In fact, conservative resistance and conquering it are what the film is substantially about. Contacting the beleaguered mining community of Onllwyn, the group invites union organizer Dai Donovan (Paddy Considine) to London to initiate dialogue. They take him to a gay club, where no one is interested at first, but then Dai gives a cheerful, jokey address—“There’s only one difference between here and a pub in South Wales—the women,” he says, looking over at a drag queen. “They’re a lot more feminine in here.” When Dai invites the LGSM to Onllwyn, they’re confronted by a range of responses—bafflement, suspicion, downright homophobia. Just as Margaret Thatcher notoriously called the striking miners Britain’s “enemy within,” the village has its own malevolent “enemy within”—scowling matriarch Maureen (Lisa Palfrey), who’s committed to the strike, but doesn’t want the support of “perverts.” Glaring out of her window from between heavy curtains, she betrays the gay-miners alliance to the reactionary tabloid press—her collabo status underlined by a Nazi helmet of a hairdo.
There are nevertheless welcoming faces in Onllwyn, including a shy, dour, elderly union stalwart (Bill Nighy, in peerless form), doughty, plain-talking middle-aged Hefina (Imelda Staunton), and her younger counterpart Siân (Jessica Gunning), who is liberated by the newcomers and their indomitable spirit (an end title reveals that the real-life Siân James went on to further her education and become a Labour Member of Parliament).
Everyone learns something here. The miners teach the gays to stick to their guns and be themselves. One Welsh character quietly confesses that he’s gay, but in an inventive twist, the film’s real coming-out episode has a gay Londoner embracing his own Welshness: Gethin (Andrew Scott), who has shunned his background because of his religious mother’s rejection, but who returns home, confronts her and properly joins the Welsh cause.
Conversely, the LGSM visitors liberate the Welsh in different ways. Put-upon wives stand up to their husbands; a woman, who always thought that sexual pleasure was just for the blokes, plants a kiss on visiting lesbian Steph (Faye Marsay); and, yes, the village learns to dance. Jonathan does some snazzy moves to “Shame Shame Shame” at the local Labour club, to everyone’s amazement—as Welsh men apparently don’t dance, or didn’t in the Eighties. Instantly, two of the burliest lads in town ask Jonathan to teach them some steps—at last, a way to impress women!
There’s plenty of culture clash jollity of this sort—notably a visit to London, where the matrons hoot with delight at the boys’ dildo and porn mags (“Jesus God, that takes me back,” Hefina enthuses over a hunky centerfold) and refuse to be turned away from a men-only club (“Don’t be daft, we’ve come all the way from Powys!”), ensuring Pride’s cheerful naughty-but-nice factor.
In many ways, Pride effectively is a musical: in one shamelessly tear-jerking scene, Mark stands to give an impassioned address, and the massed women of Onllwyn surge into a chorus of “Bread and Roses.” Much of the dialogue has a distinct “Let’s put on a show right here” ring: when the group needs a photographer, Joe chirps, “I could do it—I’ve got a camera!” There’s a gauche, artless Summer Holiday enthusiasm to it all—although you suspect that it’s probably anything but artless.
Pride alludes to, but doesn’t directly depict the reality of police brutality during the strike—something that was graphically shown in the otherwise more conservative Billy Elliot. But the film doesn’t stint on harsh reality in other respects. We get a strong sense of the virulent homophobia that was acceptable in British daily life and media back then, and the coming into public consciousness of AIDS—represented here by an airing of the “Dies Irae” TV ad that startled the UK into awareness (although it wasn’t actually screened until 1986, after this story ends). The advent of AIDS is poignantly evoked in the film’s subtlest scene, Mark’s brief encounter with a former lover (a muted, to-the-point Russell Tovey), who informs him that he’s on a “farewell tour” and gives him a tender valedictory kiss and a warning to keep safe.
But Pride doesn’t want to startle its audience with any of the more challenging aspects of gay life. Apart from that dildo and a glimpse of a fetish club, this is a curiously sexless film. Joe stays out late one night and is seen next morning looking innocently radiant, but otherwise you could well believe that none of Pride’s characters actually have sex—least of all with each other. It’s almost as if Pride were less about sexual identity or socialism, and more about the potency of pop culture—that is, the power of young people to blow fresh air into the lives of the blinkered middle-aged.
Apart from a few young people—who are depicted as being as staid as their elders—the Welsh are depicted, not a little patronizingly, as dour, dusty, beige-clad and very sheltered provincials who need their ways shaken up a bit. What seems important about the LGSM here is not so much that they’re gay, or represent a different school of radicalism, but that they’re young, hip, modish dressers, up on all the latest music. You could almost emerge from Pride thinking that LGSM’s greatest achievement was in getting Welsh people dancing to Bronski Beat. Pride comes across, then, as a generation-clash drama as much as anything, and it’s significant that the most unsympathetic figures—Maureen, and Joe’s folks in the London suburbs—are bad parents, oppressive and possessive, who won’t let their children grow up and think for themselves (not dissimilar, then, to the role that Thatcher played in relation to the U.K.).
After the strike collapses, the film ends at a Pride rally in London in 1985. The LGSM delegation arrives, to be told by an organizer to put the banners away, because it’s been decided that the event should be celebratory rather than political. For much of the film, you feel that Pride has—by necessity, given its MOR prerogative—followed the same agenda. But in fact, the very final sequence proves to be celebratory and political, set to Billy Bragg’s impassioned rendition of “There Is Power in a Union.”
Despite the generally mechanical way it pursues its overarching will to please, Pride has a lot going for it—and the performances, especially Nighy’s, bring the film the classiness and nuance it needs. In any case, in a conservative 21st-century Britain dominated by consumerist hedonism, an older, more generous politics of play has its own argument to commend it. Pride ends with a banner showing hands clenched in friendship; as Dai says earlier, “Two hands, that’s what the Labour movement means—should mean.” It could hardly be more on the nose, more literal and populist, but these days a British mainstream film invoking solidarity, of all things, is a remarkable and welcome anomaly—as is that hopeful, provocative use of the word “should.”