It sometimes feels that the British film industry only makes about three or four different kinds of movies: dreadful gangster films that rarely get a release abroad, gritty social realism pictures, period costume dramas, and semi-quirky comedies with a tearjerking side, exemplified by something like “Billy Elliot” or “The Full Monty,” but more often turning out like “Calendar Girls” or “Song For Marion.”
The latter category might be the most dispiriting of them all, and it’s the category that “Pride” initially seemed to be fitting into. The film, directed by acclaimed theater director Matthew Warchus (who just this week was appointed Kevin Spacey’s successor as the artistic director of the Old Vic Theater in London), has that mix of social issues drama, culture clash, old people doing unlikely things, and Bill Nighy that so often proves a middlebrow crowd-pleaser. But we figured there had to be a reason it had been picked to close the Directors’ Fortnight section at Cannes, and indeed there was: it’s a really, really good example of the genre, perhaps the best and most moving since “Billy Elliot.”
It shares one major element with that film: it centers around the 1984 miners strike, where the coal miners stopped work for almost a year in an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to stop Margaret Thatcher’s attempt to close down the pits. That’s not where we start, though. We begin as Mark (Ben Schnetzer), a confident Northern Irish social activist, and Joe (rising star George MacKay), a shy, closeted suburban kid, head to the gay pride march in London. Joe meets Max’s pal Mike (Joseph Gilgun, from “This Is England”) at the march, and becomes fast friends with them.
Max, finding parallels between his own cause and the striking miners, and the three, together with brash lesbian Steph (Faye Marsay), pretty boy Jeff (Freddie Fox) and bookshop owner Gethin (Andrew Scott) and his longtime partner Jonathan (Dominic West), set up LGSM—Lesbians & Gays Support The Miners—to raise money for the starving workers in solidarity. But the union refuses to accept their help, and they’re forced to directly approach a community, eventually finding Dai (Paddy Considine), the leader of the miners in a small Welsh town.
Dai is surprisingly tolerant, but can’t promise that the rest of his community will be as open-minded, and when the campaigners come to visit, they’re initially greeted with suspicion at best, and prejudice at worst. Soon, many of Dai’s colleagues (who include Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton and Jess Gunning as some of the more notable ones) are won over, but will the mining union accept their help in the same way?
Given Warchus’ background as a theater director, it’s not a huge shock that the filmmaking here isn’t especially innovative, but it’s effective enough—there’s a docudrama immediacy to some of the protest scenes, but otherwise, Warchus is happy to get out of the way and let his actors do their thing.
And though there are a couple of questionable choices (the score by Christopher Nightingale is totally misjudged, and hideous), that’s definitely the right approach, because he’s got some stellar material, and the perfect cast to pull it off. The script, by actor-turned-scribe Stephen Beresford, is based on a true story, and it probably isn’t one that was easy to wrangle into shape. We’re sure liberties have been taken, but what initially seemed to be some of the more obviously developments are proven by the closing credits to be based in fact.
Beresford does a fine job of juggling his expansive ensemble of characters (and it really is an ensemble, with no one character even really getting more screen time than the others), and almost everyone, even seemingly minor characters, get something substantial to play with at some point (Russell Tovey, from “Looking,” makes an indelible impression even with a one-scene cameo).
He’s just the tip of the iceberg, though, because the cast are, across the board, absolutely superb. Nighy and West are probably the biggest names here, and they’re both excellent in parts a long way from their usual type: the former is lovely and delicate as the shy, mild miner finding a new simmering rage at the government’s treatment of his colleagues, while West gets to have flamboyant fun as the camp actor, particularly in an impressive dance sequence. “Sherlock” star Andrew Scott, as West’s partner, gets some of the most emotional material to play with, and absolutely aces it as well, while Staunton is reliably strong, and Considine is dignified and enormously winning, again in a sort of role that he doesn’t often get cast in.
But the younger actors are just as impressive as the veterans here, with Warchus and his casting directors showcasing talent that we’ll be seeing for a long time to come. MacKay’s part is a tricky one—passive and insular for much of the film, but the actor expertly modulates his gradual awakening and growing confidence. Schnezter was a totally new face even to us, but expect to see a lot more of him: he’s a fiercely charismatic and impassioned performer, while “Fresh Meat” actress Faye Marsay is excellent too. Best of all is Jess Gunning, as the mousey housewife who goes on to greater things. We were wowed by her on the comedy circuit in London a few years ago, but she’s superb as the moral center of the picture.
There are places in which the film could risk becoming overly sentimental, but if there is sentiment there, Warchus really earns it. In part, it’s because he’s honest about pairing victories with defeats, and not sugarcoating the real events (there’s no glossing over that the miners didn’t win the strike, for instance). But also it’s that the film has more in common with Ken Loach than, say, “The Full Monty.”
It’ll be interesting to see how the film plays with wider audiences, especially in the States, because this is one of the most unabashedly socialist pictures we’ve seen in a long time (and that’s even having seen Ken Loach’s new one only the day before). Warchus and Beresford have made an unashamed love letter to activism, to the working-class, and most importantly, the power of solidarity between the oppressed, making a strong case that the events it depicts were a major turning point for the gay rights movement in the U.K. (where gay marriage became law earlier this year, passed by a right-wing government no less).
This admittedly hits us right in a sweet spot (one moment, where the Working Men’s Club erupts in a spontaneous rendition of union song “Bread & Roses,” had this old leftie basically shake-crying), but the uneasy brotherhood between the miners and the LGBT crowd is so carefully and tastefully depicted that only the hardest of hearts could fail to be moved (and indeed, it blew the fucking roof off the Marriott on Friday night, debuting to one of the warmest receptions we’ve ever heard at a festival).
The filmmaking is admittedly functional rather than particularly artful, but you somewhat appreciate that Warchus is determined to distract you as little as possible from the story and characters. And once or twice, the screenplay does take a wrong turn: in particularly, a Mrs.-Lovejoy-From-The-Simpsons-ish won’t-someone-think-of-the-children villain played (very well) by Lisa Palfrey is barely even two-dimensional, which is disappointing given how well-drawn everyone else is.
But otherwise, the whole thing is a prime display of a rousing crowd-pleaser done right. “Pride” does not push the medium into new territory and was certainly not the most challenging or complex film in Cannes, but it was the one that moved us the most. [A-]