Power in a Union: “Pride” (2014)



I usually only write about genre on this site, but every now and then, a work of art comes along that affects me so deeply, I can’t bring myself to ignore it here just because it doesn’t fit under a prescribed category. Such is the case with the recent British film, Pride, which I saw in a small indie cinema just over a week ago in New York, and which touched me so deeply and entertained me so much that I proceeded to see it once more in New York the very next day, and then twice more when I returned home to Minneapolis. I haven’t revisited a new film–no matter how much I may have enjoyed it–so many times in the same week, and particularly not in the theatre, since I was in high school, and yet Pride has a magnetic draw over me that I can’t adequately put into words. I simply can’t remember the last time I have fallen so deeply and purely in love with a film. I already practically know it by heart, but I would go again and see it right here, right now, in a heartbeat. Part of me feels as if I would be perfectly happy watching it every single day of my life.

It is remarkably uplifting yet at times also shattering. I have yet to emerge from the film without eyes wet with tears, and even knowing it inside and out by this point, I still need a few moments to compose myself after each viewing. And yet it isn’t a tragedy or an emotionally manipulative tearjerker. Far from it. The feelings it provokes in me are some of the most honest and wonderful I’ve ever experienced. I cry largely because I leave each time completely dazzled by peoples’ capacity for kindness towards one another, that even in very dark times, human beings can be remarkable to each other. And Pride has some genuine sadness, too, along with plenty of laughs. Every time I see it, I want to just hug every single person I see on the street. I want to sing and dance. I want to start a revolution.

Set during the 1984 Miners’ Strike in the UK, Pride tells the unlikely but true story of an organisation of gay men and women who decided to raise money to support a mining town whose workers and families were being devastated by Margaret Thatcher and her draconian reign. Under the name, LGSM–Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners–this group initially had trouble finding people who would either take them seriously or condescend to accept their help, until Onllwyn, a small town in Dulais Valley, South Wales finally agreed. Naturally, at first, the manly men of the pits and others in the town demonstrated discomfort with these queer activists, but it would probably be no surprise to savvy filmgoers that the two disparate groups eventually came to embrace each other. However, this is no To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar romp filled with camp caricatures and easy solutions, but, again, a true story. Led by a passionate young man from Northern Ireland called Mark Ashton, a group of English gays and lesbians really did choose to help another oppressed group in 1984 rather than simply fighting for their own rights, despite realizing that their efforts might not be initially appreciated, and the town really did come to love them. The fact that this happened in early 1980s Britain, when sodomy had only been made legal in England and Wales just over a decade and a half earlier, when the age of consent for gay people was set at 21, even though it was just 16 for heterosexuals, and when homophobia was at an outrageous high, not helped by the rampant spread of HIV/AIDS, feels nothing short of miraculous.

And as opposed to many “inspired-by-true-events” sort of films, Pride doesn’t stray far from the truth for dramatic effect. Screenwriter Stephen Beresford conducted interviews with numerous surviving members of the time from both LGSM and Onllwyn in order to create the screenplay, and both he and director Matthew Warchus strove for authenticity in the piece. Most of the characters in the film are based on the real people who lived the story–correct names and all–besides one invented character, a closeted young photographer called Joe who serves as the audience surrogate at the start, and another, Gethin, who is a composite of two people. Many of the actors even bear striking physical resemblences to the people who they are portraying. Furthermore, the film was partially filmed on location in the actual town of Onllwyn, as well as at Gay’s the Word, the gay bookshop in London whose backrooms served as the original HQ for LGSM.

If this same story were dramatised by a big Hollywood studio, melodramatic narrative flourishes would have undoubtedly been added, along with insufferable musical montages to track the evolution of the relationships between the groups, the cast would all look like models, and the whole enterprise would feel like Oscar bait. Luckily, however, Warchus keeps his production deliberately simple and small, making it inestimably more profound in the process. Up until this point, he had exclusively been a theatre director (his most acclaimed production likely being the RSC’s musical of Roald Dahl’s Matilda), and it shows in the best possible way. Rather than relying on an amped-up score or broad dramatic grandstanding to spoon-feed the story to the viewer, Warchus relies primarily on his incredibly strong ensemble of actors to transmit the characters’ emotions, often in very understated ways. He knows when to use music to add emotional power to a scene, particularly in two spotlight moments in the town meeting hall–the first of which is a burst of pure energy and joy, and the second of which is a searingly soulful scene–as well as how to use scoring surprisingly, such as one particularly devastating scene set to an ironically triumphant-sounding musical counterpoint, but he also knows when to eliminate it all together. A number of the film’s most quietly powerful moments occur with no background music whatsoever, drawing full attention to the performers and wisely allowing them to carry the scenes and convey their emotions without any external aid.

Warchus’ theatrical roots also come into play regarding such things as lighting. One standout scene uses a stark blue light to visibly wash out one particular character’s features in a manner that underlines a key revelation and subtly enhances the power of the performance, working in both mood-setting and subtly metaphorical capacities. Furthermore, none of the actors look like glossy models. Many of the men are handsome and women are pretty, but none ostentatiously so. The people of Onllwyn look like the people of a depressed Welsh mining town in 1984 should look, and even the gay characters aren’t physically idealized specimens. The entire 1980s zeitgeist is conjured up with such understated, naturalistic authenticity, it practically feels like a documentary at times. The story is inspiring without ever attempting to beat the audience’s emotions into submission. Most of the times that Pride makes me tear up, it’s when it doesn’t even seem like it’s trying to.

Hefina (Imelda Staunton) and Jonathan (Dominic West) get down.

Hefina (Imelda Staunton) and Jonathan (Dominic West) get down.

And, again, this magnificent cast deserves a great deal of the praise in that area. At the moment, I’m hardpressed to think of another film with this many dazzling performances. Although this is a genuine ensemble piece with no single protagonist, the film is largely anchored by Ben Schnetzer’s intensely charismatic performance as Mark Ashton, depicting him as a true force of nature: driven, funny, brash, stubborn, not a perfect person but exceedingly likeable and uncommonly giving of his energy and time for a cause that he’s passionate about. And although Schnetzer is an American, his Irish accent is so convincing, I have trouble remembering this while watching. It’s particularly impressive just how brightly he shines in a film also populated by such venerated actors as Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy, both playing pillars of the Onllwyn community, the former Hefina Headon, a tough, no-nonsense, yet loving woman who ran support for the miners during the strike, and the latter Cliff, a gentle, soft-spoken man who had lost his brother to an accident at the mines years ago, and whose personality is at surprising odds with the more grandiose, scenery-chewing roles Nighy is most known for these days. Other standouts include George McKay as Joe, the aforementioned 20-year-old who evolves from a wide-eyed newcomer at the start of the film to a proud, seasoned LGSM member, Faye Marsay as Steph, a self-professed “gobby dyke” who takes Joe under her wing and is initially the only lesbian in the group, Dominic West as defiantly flamboyant actor, Jonathan Blake, who runs the gay bookshop with his partner, Gethin (one of the few aforementioned departures from reality; Blake’s actual partner is Nigel Young, but there is a real Gethin, as well), Jessica Gunning as Sian James, a strong-willed housewife who becomes a passionate advocate for the miners and LGSM, and Russell Tovey as Tim, a former boyfriend of Mark’s, who appears in only one scene but is one of the actor’s greatest and most profoundly moving performances to date.

My favourite performance of the entire film, though, is likely Andrew Scott as Gethin. Primarily known as the ostentatiously theatrical Moriarty on the BBC’s Sherlock, Scott is the polar opposite here. Gethin is an introverted gay Welshman, a bit uncomfortable in his own skin, who hasn’t been home in 16 years due to the horrible treatment he received at the hands of his community and religiously pious mother. Scott is immeasurably effective here, often catching the viewer off-guard by how indescribably powerful he can be in his quietest moments. He brings tears to my eyes numerous times on each viewing of the film: in two cases, it is due to his subtle reading of lines comprised of just two words each; in others, he is silent all together. I cannot sing his praises enough. He also has remarkable chemistry with the louder, brasher West. If I didn’t know they were actors in a film, I could easily have been fooled into thinking they were a real, long-term, deeply loving couple whose diametrically opposed personalities complement each other perfectly.

And despite the film practically bursting at the seams with great cast members and performances, Beresford’s screenplay and Warchus’ direction handle them all beautifully, threading their dizzying array of arcs throughout the piece so expertly that even the characters/stories that receive less screen time still feel fully lived in. As audience members, we believe that these people continue to breathe and exist when the camera isn’t on them, and often due to the tiniest and most economical of flourishes. Because of this, the film also improves on successive viewings, as one can pay more attention to some of the more minor character moments that might not have registered as prominently the first time. Pride‘s creators have a keen knack for knowing what needs to be shown on screen and what can be inferred.

Being set in the 1980s, another unfortunate element of life at the time that the film had to address is the HIV/AIDS crisis, and Pride excels at this, as well. Although it isn’t its primary focus, it is inextricable from a depiction of the gay community in the early 80s, and Beresford and Warchus strike the perfect balance of maintaining the film’s ultimately upbeat, life-affirming story while also treating this horrifying epidemic–which more than one LGSM member contracted–with the seriousness and gravity that it deserves. They don’t just pay it lip service but weave it into the narrative’s framework in a manner that is exceedingly powerful, at times horrendously painful, but also just right.

And in keeping with this level of verisimilitude, the film also refuses to sugarcoat the truth. Again, this isn’t a candy-colored tale about a gaggle of gays turning a drab town fabulous. The striking miners are living an existence marked by hunger, degradation, and a lack of power on multiple levels, and Pride honours that. It also doesn’t offer up a blissful storybook ending. Not everything turns out perfectly happily for everybody, and the villains don’t all get their richly deserved comeuppances. One of the main reasons I believe Pride strikes such a chord with me is because it demonstrates not only that a “feel-good movie” doesn’t require naivete or condescension, but that sometimes the richest emotions are a combination of joy and sadness. We have come a great deal since 1984, but true equality–not only for gays but for any of the so-called lower classes, for women, for minorities, etc etc–is still a long ways away. However, learning of a true story in which seemingly vastly different people came together long before this sort of thing ever seemed attainable at all can be an especially potent balm, especially when that story is told with as much humanity and depth as it is here.

Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer), etc.

Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer), Mike Jackson (Joseph Gilgun), Gethin Roberts (Andrew Scott), and Jonathan Blake (Dominic West)

Author: Robert Berg

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  1. Excellent review. I saw the trailer last week, and I thought I might see it. Now I definitely will. Have you read How Green Was My Valley which is a true story of a Welsh mining community? Germinal, the greatest book about mine strikes by Emile Zola, portrays the horrors that miners undergo, and what the owners face as well. I live for the day when we will no longer depend on fossil fuels which cause unimaginable risks for the workers. Of course, solar and wind capitalists will still find ways to exploit workers, but perhaps the workers will not face as many dangers. Again, you write eloquently and analytically. You should send a copy of your review to The Times or The Washington Post.

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