Friday, October 10, 2014

Pride: A British charmer with a lot to say

Pride (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, and quite stupidly, for occasional sexual candor and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.10.14

British filmmakers excel at their signature blend of whimsy, gentle drama, sharp social commentary and (sometimes) misfit romance.

Wrap it around a slice of actual history, and the result can be irresistible.

Mineworkers rep Dai (Paddy Considine, second from right) sympathetically explains the
difficulties inherent in a proposal presented by, from left, Jeff (Freddie Fox), Mark (Ben
Schnetzer), Steph (Faye Marsay), Mike (Joseph Gilgun) and Joe (George MacKay).
Potential discomfort aside, though, Mark and the rest aren't about to let conservative
concerns get in the way of a great idea.
Truly, I think the Brits invented, perfected and patented a wholly unique genre: one that deserves its own name. I vote for Brimsy.

Examples that leap to mind include Calendar Girls, Brassed Off, Kinky Boots, Made in Dagenham and, perhaps the most successful, Billy Elliot. Not yet released on these shores is One Chance; meanwhile, we can enjoy the sweet, charming and frequently funny Pride.

Director Matthew Warchus and first-time scripter Stephen Beresford have set their dramedy against the debilitating 1984 UK mineworkers strike, which pitted stubborn and increasingly desperate blue-collar workers — and their families — against a resolutely defiant Margaret Thatcher. That this grim scenario yielded an unlikely social miracle, back in the day, is surprise enough; better still is the clever, engaging and joyously triumphant manner in which Warchus and Beresford have turned it into a droll, feel-good film.

The action begins as the shy and soft-spoken Joe (George MacKay), 20 years old and deeply closeted, travels from his suburban Bromley home in order to witness a Gay Pride march in London. He can’t help getting swept up by events; before he knows it, he has become part of a small but rowdy cluster of activists who meet regularly at a Soho bookstore run by the wildly flamboyant Jonathan Blake (Dominic West) and his quieter Welsh partner, Gethin (Andrew Scott).

The group is led, more or less, by the charismatic Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer), a hard-charging agitator forever seeking a new means of getting their message across. His newest scheme is purely altruistic: Inspired by newspaper headlines that continue to vilify the striking mineworkers, Mark points out that — sexual orientation aside — their plights are quite similar. Gays know what it’s like to be misunderstood, hated and harassed by jeering figures of authority (i.e. cops).

Why not strike a blow for solidarity, then, by raising funds to help the strikers?

The resulting grass-roots organization — Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) — faces an uphill struggle, first from friends and peers who believe it far more important to raise money for gay rights. But the fledging group persists, only to encounter a bigger problem: No official mineworkers entity wants anything to do with them, regardless of the offered money in hand.

Refusing to be beaten, Mark and his gang bypass union bureaucracy and randomly select the small Welsh mining town of Onllwyn, in the Dulais Valley. They liaise with Dai (Paddy Considine), an uncertain but open-minded resident and local mineworkers rep who agrees to visit London and face the dubious, mildly hostile audience in a gay nightclub.

To everybody’s surprise, Dai’s heartfelt gratitude encourages the crowd, particularly when he mentions that their union symbol — two hands clasped in solidarity — does, indeed, refer to all willing comrades.

The fundraising efforts take off, at which point the truly daunting task must be faced: a personal visit by the core LGSM members to Onllwyn. The prospect is intimidating at best, truly terrifying at worst ... because, traditionally, deeply conservative working communities are the first to loathe, distrust and even attack big-city “sexual deviants” who are perceived as arrogant and hostile to values cherished by church-going families.

And with the gaudy and unapologetically outspoken Jonathan present, disaster seems guaranteed.

From our vantage point, though, this potential culture clash couldn’t be more promising.

Although the story is driven by this core plotline, our attention is drawn just as much to the many intimate character arcs. First and foremost is Joe, dubbed “Bromley” by his new friends, who continues to hide his activities from strict parents who, he’s certain, wouldn’t understand. Schnetzer nails the dazed and even amazed eagerness of this young man, who likely never expected to find companionship and acceptance among so many new comrades ... even if they do tease him mercilessly.

Scott, best known as the maniacal Moriarty to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, moves in an entirely different direction with his heartbreaking handling of Gethin, who hasn’t visited his native Wales since a long-ago estrangement with his own strait-laced mother. Joe may be shy and withdrawn, but Gethin is emotionally beaten: absolutely unable to confront his past, and kept going mostly by constant encouragement from the jovial Jonathan.

West, for his part, is a force of nature as Jonathon: an unabashed, gay send-up of John Travolta’s character from Saturday Night Fever, dumped into the last little town in which one would expect to find such an individual. And his dance moves are sensational.

Then there’s the punked-out Steph (Faye Marsay), initially the sole woman holding up the “L” in their merry little band. Marsay makes Steph shameless, tart-tongued and just a little bit lonely: a reflexive flirt seeking love, but willing to settle for becoming Joe’s new best friend.

Then, too, we wonder if the brash, outspoken Mark can settle down long enough to acknowledge the obvious interest from Mike (Joseph Gilgun), LGSM’s less spontaneous and more detail-oriented voice of calm.

Once the scene shifts to Onllwyn, we also meet Cliff (the always dependable Bill Nighy), a reserved fellow whose brother perished in a mining accident years earlier, leaving a deeply embittered widow — Lisa Palfrey, as Maureen — who functions as the ultra-conservative villain of this piece. The feisty Hefina (Imelda Staunton) is more pragmatic, while down-to-earth Siân James (Jessica Gunning) is completely accepting ... even if her husband, Martin (Rhodri Meilir), has his doubts.

Nighy and Staunton are longtime cinematic pros who, between them, seem to pop up in every other film made in Britain: consummate character actors who never fail to deliver thoroughly delightful performances. Considine is similarly strong, as the small-town spokesman who understands the potential problems involved with this improbable alliance, but grits his teeth and hopes for the best.

Many of these various characters, and the interpersonal dynamics linking or distancing them, are fabrications of Beresford’s imagination: carefully composed archetypes designed to propel a storyline set against these fact-based events. But quite a few are authentic: Mark Ashton, Jonathan Blake and Siân James are real people who, along with LGSM, played a defining role in the mineworkers strike.

(Want to be amazed? Check out Blake’s startling status as one of England’s early gay activists, and as the first patient at Middlesex Hospital to be diagnosed HIV-positive ... all the way back in October 1982. And he’s still with us.)

The newspaper headlines reproduced for this film also are authentic, reflecting the degree to which Thatcher had Rupert Murdoch and similarly powerful — and shamefully biased — press barons in her pocket. And, yes, there really was a “Pits and Perverts” benefit, held in London’s Electric Ballroom in December 1984, which came about for the reasons depicted here.

It really is an amazing story: absolutely a paradigm to be championed as proof that even the most unlikely allies can find common ground. (Are you listening, U.S. Congress?)

Historical echoes aside, our primary concern is that Pride is a touching and deftly constructed misfit/underdog saga. Warchus and Beresford have done a grand job, and their film definitely belongs in the company of all the aforementioned Brimsy entries.

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