‘Pride’: Touching social comedy

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Inspired by actual events, “Pride” depicts the unlikely alliance that was forged between two groups, striking coal miners and London-based gay activists.

In 1984, as part of her attack on public unions, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced her administration’s closing of twenty nationalized coal mines and the intention to close over seventy in toto. This triggered mass walk-outs and strikes by the miners. Tensions escalated, culminating in the bloody Battle of Orgreave, which took place in South Yorkshire. In this violent confrontation, a force of 5,000 policemen, including 50 baton-wielding mounted officers, descended on picketing miners.

“Pride” encapsulates this national crisis by reprising historic footage of Thatcher. In it, she denounced the miners and expressed her flinty resolve to break their union. A news spot about the strike plays in the background as a number of gay activists gather in a London bookstore. They are preparing to attend a Gay Pride march.

On hearing Thatcher’s remarks, Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) experiences an epiphany. He concludes that gays should support the miners. He reasons that miners and gays both share the same enemies; Thatcher, the police, and the right-wing tabloid newspapers. However, the store’s owner, Mike (Joseph Gilgun) dismisses the notion with a sarcastic utterance, “Yeah, because the miners have always come to our aid.” Undaunted, Mark idealistically insists, “Doesn’t matter. It’s the right thing to do.”

Mark spearheads the formation of the grassroots group, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. It includes a feisty, wise-cracking lesbian, Steph (Faye Marsay); a flamboyant actor, Jonathan (Dominic West); his subdued boyfriend Gethin (Andrew Scott); and several other less developed characters. The group adopts a twenty year-old, Joe (George MacKay), who is coming out of the closet for the first time. They nickname him “Bromley” after the town he hails from.

When Mark contacts the National Union of Miners offering his support, they rebuff his offer. Undaunted, Mark randomly picks the Welsh village of Onllwyn in the Dulais valley as the recipient of the money that the group is collecting.

Mark and his cohorts drive south in a brightly painted orange and white van to meet the recipients of their fundraising. They meet Dai (Paddy Considine), the genial lodge representative. Dai confesses that from the group’s acronym, LGSM, he had not divined that they were homosexual. He evidences some discomfiture at meeting people from a subculture, which is alien to him. Nevertheless, he is genuinely grateful that a bunch of total strangers have seen fit to support the overwhelmed miners.

Dai’s gratitude is shared by some members of the miners’ community. Cliff (Bill Nighy) is a refined, poetry reciting authority on local history. He seems out of place among these provincial bumpkins. Hefina Headon (Imelda Stauton) exudes a maternal warmth. This has particular resonance for some members  of LGSM, who have been rejected by their disapproving parents. Siân James is a stay at home mother of two. She has begrudgingly accepted her fate as a traditional, submissive wife. Gwen (Menna Trussler) is an adorable elderly woman.  She remains studiously non-judgmental even as she expresses confusion over certain aspects of the gay modus vivendi.

However, there are dissenting voices. The most virulent homophobe is Maureen (Lisa Palfrey), the mean-spirited widow of a miner. She incites antipathy towards the gay altruists. Maureen organizes opposition to accepting help from a bunch of so-called perverts. The internal conflict of social values ensues in the mining village and propels the narrative.

The culture clash is captured at a union meeting hall. As pop music plays over the amplifiers, the village women bemoan the fact that their men adamantly refuse to dance with them. When the infectious strains of   Sylvia Robinson’s seventies disco hit, “Shame, Shame, Shame,” punctuate the affair, the ever uninhibited Jonathan begins playfully dancing with the Welsh women. This escalates into a full-fledged, choreographed number with Jonathan leaping from tabletop to tabletop, showing off his terpsichorean skills. Viewers familiar with West from his role as Detective Jimmy McNulty on television’s “The Wire,” will likely be taken aback by his acrobatic prancing.

The acting here is top-notch. Well-known British actors Nighy, Stauton, and Considine lend their considerable gravitas to the proceedings. However, it is the relatively obscure Ben Schnetzer, who emerges as the film’s most significant character. Heretofore, his principal screen credit was as the emaciated Jew seeking refuge during the Holocaust in last year’s “The Book Thief.” He is actually an American actor, whose Yankee origins are well obfuscated behind a convincing accent. In the role of a committed do-gooder, Schnetzer demonstrates a natural screen presence and an androgynous charm.

First time screenwriter, Stephen Beresford, provides the blueprint for a social comedy. It joins such prior examples of the genre, that the British have seemingly perfected. as evidenced by “Brassed Off,” “Billy Elliot,” and “The Full Monty.” Like those films, “Pride” leavens important messages about important social issues with more than a dollop of humor. Witness a vignette, when the Welsh women visit London and stay in the home of a male member of LGSM. They erupt into gales of laughter when they discover a vibrator and a gay pornographic magazine. As they flip through its pages, Hefina wistfully reflects, “That takes me back.”

A screen capture of the trailer for "Pride" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I2Kv-OpucyM

A screen capture of the trailer for “Pride” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I2Kv-OpucyM

Matthew Warchus is a veteran West End and Broadway director. His theatrical background is evident in the staging of the union hall dance sequence. In a pair of scenes, which involve tensions between homophobic parents and their gay progeny, Warchus displays sensitivity.

Given the film’s message, which stresses tolerance, it is ironic that the reflexively homophobic MPAA slapped “Pride” with an R rating. That means if you are under the age of 17, you not see this film, unless you are accompanied by an adult. The film includes a visit to a gay bar and an amusing vignette in which a Welsh woman discovers a pink dildo. Does that really justify an R rating?

“Pride” succumbs to a few well-worn movie clichés. However, it laudably resists the temptation to gloss over the ugly reality of homophobia or harsh Thatcher era government policies.

A well-integrated amalgam of tonally disparate elements, “Pride” is a touching social comedy.

*** ½ R (for language and brief sexual content) 120 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.
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