Shown this Christmas on BBC2, 2014’s Pride was my favourite film of that year and hopefully will find a wider audience on its terrestrial television premiere.
This is an article I wrote about the film (with a few minor edits) for the late and much lamented movie magazine Verite.Deep in my heart I do not weep
How Pride trumps cynicism
Early in Pride – a film about organised LBGT support of a Welsh community during the long industrial action called by the National Union of Mineworkers in 1984 – Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) the de-facto leader of a gay activist group is questioned as to why they would want to support working-class miners, commonly seen as rigidly normative in sexuality and gender roles by their sub-culture. Ashton responds “Who hates the miners? Thatcher, the police, and the tabloid press. Does that sound familiar?” concluding that about the only enemy they don’t share is Mary Whitehouse – and that’s probably only a matter of time. The dialogue is snappy and comic, fitting the breezy tone of Pride’s early scenes, but it also gets to the heart of film’s real theme, how apparently disparate communities find common ground, build relationships, and create unity.
Beginning from a macroscopic viewpoint focussed on the activists and set in and around their HQ, the LGBT bookshop Gay’s the Word, the audience enters the world of 1984 through the character of Joe (George MacKay) a 20-year-old ingénue on the fringes of the gay scene (and thus not legal under the laws of the day). Joe – nicked named ‘Bromley’ due to his outward appearance of suburban conformity.
Gradually other characters are introduced… there is a clearly conscious artistic decision to keep the mining community remote. Initially the strike is seen only as background details, on television and in newspaper headlines. Despite raising funds (the old fashioned way, on the street with a slogan and a bucket for change) attempts to make contact with the Union are rebuffed. Frustrated by the red-tape and disinterest coming from official channels Ashton decides to go straight to the source and begins calling local miner’s groups directly, due to a dodgy telephone connection (which obscures the full meaning of the group’s name LGSM – Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) contact is finally made. Keeping the characters and action restricted to the (mostly) young and urban gay characters set up a classic culture clash comedy.
With the unexpected arrival in London of local miner’s leader Dai Donovan (Paddy Considine) to accept their collection money, the vista of the film widens dramatically. Director Matthew Warchus and screenwriter Stephen Beresford have set up the illusion of a binary opposition between the apparent vibrancy of gay cultural life and the urban environs in which it thrives, and a grey and unforgiving rural and ‘straight’ mining community.
The beauty of Warchus and Beresfords’ film is in the movement from this macroscopic point of view to a microscopic one. Under scrutiny what appear to be two culturally and ideologically monolithic groups — one sexually and socially progressive, one steeped in tradition and a rigid social order — is exploded into a multitude of individuals. Each is deftly characterised by a combination of smart writing and a very talented cast of actors all of whom are given their moment to shine, and all of whom seize the opportunity.
Despite the urban environment they have settled in, many of the core gay characters have regional voices: Ashton is Northern Irish, LGSM co-founder Mike Jackson (Joseph Gilgun) is from the Midlands; brash lesbian Steph (Faye Marsey) hails from the North of England; perhaps most affecting is the character of Gethin (Andrew Scott). The manager of Gay’s the Word, Gethin is a native of Ryhl in North Wales, but has entered a self-imposed exile due to unresolved personal issues. His story presents a personal narrative that will be familiar to many LGBT people from a rural background. A narrative expressed in the song Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat (which features on the film’s excellent collection of contemporary music).
While not entirely comprised of regional immigrants to London – Joe is suburban, and Gethin’s lover Jonathan (Dominic West) and Jeff (Freddie Fox playing a variation on his performance as Marilyn from Boy George biopic Worried About The Boy) have RP accents – these characters are grouped by the way the mainstream of eighties British political culture defines their sexualities as ‘other’ and by their own choice to create an alternative community.
In contrast, the Welsh miners and their families are a community bound together by geography and class. The lack of social mobility among the working class community is striking. A moving speech on the miner’s relationship with the coal seam is given by town elder Cliff (Bill Nighy, excellent in quite an uncharacteristic role). This soliloquy acknowledges that it is the coal that binds the people together, but also that the pit takes as much as it gives (Cliff lost a brother in an industrial accident).
You may object that the experience of a LGBT person in a rural community in this period would be quite different to the urban experience. As has been noted in 1984 the age of consent for homosexual men was still unequal with that for heterosexuals. When homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967, the age of consent for gay men was set at 21, as opposed to 16 for heterosexuals. An equal age of consent did not become law until 2001 (2009 in Northern Ireland). This is just one of the reasons that many LGBT people would feel unable or unwilling to be open regarding their sexuality. Something acknowledged in the film when Donovan remarks upon meeting Ashton and his group for the first time of “you’re the first gays I’ve ever met.” “That you know of” is his reply.
Pride is not embarrassed to go for big crowd pleasing moments and big emotions, among a copious collection of highlights Considine rips your heart out early with an unexpectedly moving and gracious address to an ambivalent audience in a gay nightclub. The scene is later mirrored when the gay activists arrive in Wales and Ashton nervously gives a rather less considered speech involving a Judy Garland joke. Initial hostilities thaw during a barnstorming set-piece in which Dominic West brings disco to the valleys. Imelda Staunton has a ball in a gay BDSM club (“Sorry girls, this is men only”, “Don’t be silly love, we’ve come all the way from Powys“). This bold approach is also exemplified by Christopher Nightingale’s big brassy score which begins small but builds and builds toward the film’s triumphant finale. Perhaps the most affecting moment involves the resolution of personal issues that caused Gethin to flee his homeland. Among a uniformly strong cast, Andrew Scott turns his relatively small amount of screen time into an acting masterclass.
Clearly a continuation of a lineage comic dramas finding rich material among the social and cultural groups marginalised by the economic and social policies of Thatcherism (Letter to Brezhnev, My Beautiful Laundrette, Brassed Off, The Full Monty, and Billy Elliot among them) Pride may be the most ambitious. An incredible amount is packed into its two hours, but it never feels overstuffed.
Recognising that equality does not mean conformity ‘queer’ politics are represented as a spectrum, rather than a homogenous clump. While this aspect of the film, and the title Pride itself foreground a gay rights story, the struggle of the mining village as just as central to the plot. A variety of gender, cultural and class issues are threaded through the plot but all are deftly sketched rather than laboured. In one quietly impactful scene, as the strike continues into winter, the severity of the miners’ plight is demonstrated by a round of bingo where the prize is a can of corned beef.
Amongst the enjoyable bombast of this film, it would be a great shame if its subtleties were missed. Whilst the film is very funny indeed, and there are many big comic set-pieces to enjoy. Dark shadows lurk throughout. Chief among these is its presentation of the AIDS crisis which in 1984 was about to break into the public consciousness in a big way. The film seems to acknowledge and play with the reduced impact and concern around HIV and AIDS in 2014 (at least in the affluent west). HIV and AIDS are barely mentioned for the film’s first hour. When it suddenly surfaces as an issue, it is chilling and is acknowledged in a very powerful way.
Pride refuses to be a victim narrative. Despite AIDS, despite homophobia, despite the unavoidable fact that the miners’ strike was lost and the sort of rural community depicted in the film was devastated by the economics of Thatcherism, the film builds and swells into an absolute fanfare of celebration and triumph. In the accompanying press notes Warchus describes coming to the realisation during editing that he had made ‘a classic romantic comedy… but the relationship isn’t between individuals, but between two groups, or communities. And they are driven not by romantic love but compassion. I think it reminds us of the idea of society, that there is of course such a thing after all.’
In compressing a complicated and unfamiliar story featuring a large ensemble cast (there are 75 speaking parts), there are a few areas open to criticism. The comic characterisation of some lesbian characters as rigidly politically correct is a disappointingly conventional gag. Whilst Beresford’s characterisations are almost all exemplars of quality screenwriting. He does feel the need to provide a villain in the form of a duplicitous village committee member who cannot overcome her own prejudices. Although the character is allowed some depth it comes rather too late in events and she is too much a curtain-twitching plot device. These are very minor concerns and the quality of the screenplay is particularly impressive given it is the writer’s first screen credit.
Director Warchus has an extensive and impressive career in the theatre (including the musical Matilda) but only one previous film directing credit (a largely forgotten 1999 thriller Sympactico), however he and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe make great efforts to ensure this feels like a movie and avoids the televisual feel that can afflict British mainstream films. Even in the lower key of the early scenes the camera is moving and reframing, and the editing is dynamic. As the action moves to Wales the film opens up with sweeping aerial vistas worthy of a western.