I’ve been trying to think of a dazzlingly fresh and erudite opening line for my review of Pride but nothing quite hits the spot. All I really want to say is “Oh my God, I loved this film!”
In Pride, writer Stephen Beresford and director Matthew Warchus tell the little-known story of an unlikely alliance between gay rights activists and striking Welsh miners in 1984. The action takes place over a year – during which time the newly formed and catchily-named Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners group raises over £11,000 to help embattled miners in South Wales. The action is split between cosmopolitan Soho and the Dulais Valley. This is a culture-clash comedy. We can guess where the plot’s going – but it takes a refreshingly unpredictable route.
It’s been compared to Brassed Off, Billy Elliott and other Brit flicks set against industrial northern strife; but it’s happier than most. There’s something celebratory in the poppy soundtrack of Culture Club, Joy Division and Bananarama; and it’s gorgeous to look at too. The palette is warm and sunny. Visual flair doesn’t just come from the statement haircuts, leather jackets and three-quarter-length dungarees of the gay characters; the mining community – particularly the women – also has real style. Imelda Staunton, indomitable as the Welsh matriarch Hefina, has got me wondering if I too could pull off a pussy-bow blouse under a tweedy dress.
Let’s be straight (so to speak): this is a feel-good film. I thought it was about three quarters tender, truthful and inspiring; and one quarter overcooked. You’d say it was totally implausible if it wasn’t almost all true. Many of the characters are based on real people but, while Stephen Beresford has used some poetic licence to distil the story and reduce the cast numbers, he hasn’t re-written history. The backdrop is menacing: the miners face police brutality and penury and the gay characters live under the constant threat of social exclusion and violence, not to mention the mushrooming HIV-AIDS epidemic.
Just occasionally the warmth comes a little too easily. As the economic hardships of the strike are starting to bite and spirits are flagging, there’s a moment when a young girl stands up in the miners’ social club and spontaneously gives a pitch-perfect rendition of Bread and Roses. Gradually, you guessed it, they all stand up and join in – gays and all. The troops are rallied: united by music, a common cause and a tradition of a cappella singing. Maybe it would happen. Maybe it did happen. And I went with it – because I was pretty much in love with the film and with everyone in it by that point. But a more cynical soul might have rolled their eyes.
By and large though, the decision to keep this oyster grit-free works. It’s the story of a bunch of idealistic activists who reach out in solidarity to another group with whom they share little beyond the common enemies of Thatcher, the police and the tabloid press. At first there are suspicions on both sides but eventually they build deep friendships. If the movie steers clear of the assumption that everyone from the Dulais Valley mining community was a raging homophobe, that’s because they weren’t. The Labour MP Sian James, who was a young housewife at the time (played by Jessica Gunning in the film), remembers welcoming a visit from 27 members of LGSM. She acknowledges that although their sexuality was an issue for some miners, another divide loomed far larger in the minds of their hosts: “It was the fact that we were warned that they might be vegetarians… Back then it was very strange.” The film gets some delightfully unforced laughs out of the “cuisine” issue. It tickles me because it rings true. Bigotry is a fact of life but it’s far from universal – whereas no-one wants a house-guest who’s hard to feed.
Pride is funny, big-hearted and sparklingly well-written. It’s a real ensemble piece. It’s a large cast but somehow, with subtlety and economy, Beresford’s script gives almost everyone a meaningful journey. There’s no forgetting any of the characters. Each one is distinct. Many are loveable. Most are vulnerable. By the end of the film the stellar cast felt familiar not because of its celebrity but in spite of it. All of our familiarity, and indeed our interest, is now with the characters these very famous actors had portrayed.
Bill Nighy, for example, gives an understated but utterly compelling performance as Cliff – a thoughtful, bookish retired miner. We don’t hear that much from him – what we see is really just the odd act of gentle courtesy – but a quiet sadness lingers around him, more palpable than anything I remember from Nighy in previous roles. I was also touched by the tiny stories that ripple lightly through the film without noise or clutter. Beresford makes dramaturgy look so easy. The gay activists live in London. They’re an eclectic bunch, united in part by their ignorance about UK geography – but one of their number, Gethin, could tell them everything they need to know about Wales. Although he hasn’t been back home there for fifteen years – since he told his mum he was gay. Gethin’s story is told in about three scenes; with maybe a dozen lines of dialogue. But it’s a piercing reminder that any struggle against oppression isn’t just about obdurate freedom fighters shouting at demonstrations; it’s about fragile individuals – someone’s son or daughter – people who may one day be crushed by the injustices they endure.
The loudest voices in the film often come from those groups of people who may have been underdogs in 1984 but are far from that today. Even then the raucous, indefatigable and by-and-large enlightened miners’ wives look as if they’re going somewhere. Sian James was not the only uneducated woman who went on to great things after her intellect and ambition were awakened by the Strike. And, although the struggle for gay equality is by no means over, worldwide or even in this country, we have come so far today. But it’s another story for the miners. The pits were closed. Communities, livelihoods and aspirations were destroyed – not just for one unlucky workforce but, in so many areas of the UK, for subsequent generations too. And most of them are already on the back foot in Pride. But the ending, which I won’t give away, puts the miners – all 140,000 of them – centre stage. A cheery film can’t change the harsh reality of what the pit closures did to the miners’ livelihoods but it can and does reinvigorate their history.
So many of the performances have stayed with me: Paddy Considine, Dominic West and Ben Schnetzer are all transfixing to watch but it’s the story that makes this film so unforgettable. The mass appeal of this tale, that was deemed too niche for a mainstream audience by successive movie producers for years, is the truth that’s bound up in it: united we stand. This truth resonates just as strongly today. The battles of identity politics and social justice still rage even though some of the targets have changed and the means of persecution are different. I’m reminded of the words of Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no-one left to speak for me.
So many people in this film come to believe in solidarity in the face of injustice with an infectious fervour. That strength of conviction is in itself inspiring even though the miners were eventually defeated. But Beresford’s script creates, at the end, one final piece of alchemy. It delivers a truly uplifting ending; a feel-good moment that’s both cinematically stirring and historically accurate. Just go and see it.