Following the minor disappointment of Ken Loach’s somewhat lethargic Jimmy’s Hall (2014), left-leaning political activism returns to UK cinemas, but this time in the much livelier and fun-filled exuberance of Matthew Warchus’ Queer Palm-winning agit-comedy Pride (2014). It’s 1984, in the depths of the miners’ strikes, and gay activist Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) is inspired to start raising money for the miners, arguing that the two apparently disparate groups have common interests. Like the miners, the gay and lesbian community is harassed by the police and demonised by the media. LGSM’s persuasive argument – if the miners didn’t fuel the power stations, “You couldn’t listen to Banarama at three in the morning.”
Enlisting his group of friends who run a Camden bookshop, Mark sets about his task, but an unexpected obstacle arises in getting a miners’ group who are willing to accept the funds. Until, that is, they come across the tiny village of Dulais where the funds are accepted by mistake. Undeterred, Mark and his group visit the miners and after initial hostility win them over with a combination of political solidarity and Dominic West’s dancing. The ensemble piece includes a host of familiar faces from British comedy fare. Among the gay activists from London, there is the closeted and (at the time illegally) Joe (George MacKay), in contrast to the out and proud Jonathan (West, here channelling his inner Withnail) and Jonathan’s boyfriend, the melancholy Welshman Gethin (a fine Andrew Scott, also in Loach’s inferior Jimmy’s Hall).
On the side of the miners with their Welsh accents carefully combed, Imelda Staunton plays Hefina, a firebrand to the cause and an instant supporter of Mark’s gang. Paddy Considine’s Dai is more pragmatic at first, having never (knowingly) met a homosexual, but he warms to Mark and the group, realising that they embody the true meaning of solidarity, cutting across all boundaries in the name of the common struggle. Speaking of ‘unknowingly’, Bill Nighy plays Cliff, a shy man, prone to quoting reams of poetry when he’s not yelling at policemen and someone who blinks wonderingly at the community’s new friends, half in awe and half in regret. Stephen Beresford’s script keeps the large ensemble focused and the beats coming. There is wit and sincerity here, as well as a healthy dose of self-deprecation which means the good intentions never congeal into lumpen righteousness. Chris Nightingale’s score has a deft use of the blast from the past soundtrack, with a Bronski Beat ‘Pits and Perverts’ tribute concert integral to the continued struggle.
The successor-elect of Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic, Warchus adheres fairly closely to the Billy Elliot/Full Monty template and the strokes are fairly broad: a villainous family who connive to rid themselves of the gays in the village are pantomime in their simplicity. Warchus’ thesis contends that, despite the outcome, the struggle itself is ennobling and transformative. Almost every character finishes in a different place and Sian (Jessica Gunning) is the perfect example of this. A young housewife at the beginning of the film, by the conclusion she has had her own revolution and is an assertive battler who will as a result go on to bigger and better things. Brilliantly played and at times very funny, Pride proves that people make history, even if they do so in ways they initially don’t understand. It’s a feel good movie but also a refreshing blast from the past, expressing a nostalgia for a time when political quietism and apathy had not won the day and a Billy Bragg song made more than historical sense. There’s power in the union after all.
This review of Matthew Warchus’ Pride was originally published on 23 May as part of our Cannes Film Festival coverage.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty