'Pride': Cannes Review

Pride Still Cannes - H 2014
Courtesy of Festival de Cannes

Pride Still Cannes - H 2014

Resistance is futile.

A bitterly divisive strike in Margaret Thatcher's Britain fosters an unlikely union of solidarity between embattled mineworkers and militant gays in this rousing true story.

CANNES – In socially conscious Brit comedy-dramas of the late 1990s, like The Full Monty, Brassed Off and Billy Elliot, exuberant self-expression provided at least a temporary antidote to the death of industries and the suffocation of the working-class communities that depended on them for their livelihood. A crowd-pleasing throwback to those films that pushes every formulaic button but is no less entertaining for it, Pride chronicles the reluctant romance between the workers and families involved in the bitter 1984 miners’ strike and a group of London gay and lesbian activists who were among their biggest fundraisers.

Directed by theater heavyweight Matthew Warchus (Matilda), the screenplay by Stephen Beresford spreads its focus across too many characters, meaning not every dramatic signpost gets the attention it merits. But the film is funny, warm-hearted and enormously satisfying, as demonstrated by the ecstatic audience response to its Directors Fortnight premiere in Cannes, which bodes well for its international prospects. On home turf, it has major Brit hit written all over it.

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The story is bookended by the London Gay Pride marches of 1984 and '85. Watching TV news coverage of the National Union of Mineworkers strike over pit closures, and of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s unsympathetic response, impassioned young gay activist Mark (Ben Schnetzer) rounds up buckets from his neighbors and convinces a few of his fellow marcher friends to collect cash to support the miners' families. One of those roped in is Joe (George Mackay), a nice suburban lad with one foot still in the closet.

The fight for LGBT rights would appear unrelated to the labor battles of the blue-collar wasteland, but Mark sees the virtue of solidarity among the marginalized and oppressed. He assembles a small group to raise money, making a persuasive case that they share the common enemy of Thatcher's conservative government and its policy of steamrolling the disenfranchised.

When attempts by the activists to contact the strike organizers are rebuffed, they decide to bypass the union and go directly to the people. They pinpoint Dulais, a small mining village in South Wales, and set off in a van to make their gesture in person, calling themselves LGSM – Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. But resistance in the homophobic community makes for a bumpy courtship.

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Pretty much every development beyond that setup is telegraphed in advance, but there's plenty of enjoyment to be had in watching the villagers loosen up.

Unsurprisingly, the women of the community are the least threatened by the outsiders, among them feisty, salt-of-the-earth Hefina (Imelda Staunton), progressive thinker Sian (Jessica Gunning) and Gwen (Menna Trussler), a sweet old dear who greets them with joyful curiosity. But union man Dai (Paddy Considine) is the key mediator, pointing up the significance of the handshake symbol in mineworker history. The LGSM delegation also gets a warm welcome from Cliff (Bill Nighy), a gentle soul with a love of poetry and local history.

A number of scenes, of both the humorous and stirring variety, are brazen in their adherence to a well-worn boilerplate. One has theatrically loud-and-proud Jonathan (Dominic West) enlivening a church hall gathering by boogying down to disco evergreen "Shame, Shame, Shame," in a town where men don't dance. ("They can't move their hips," explains a local girl.) Another has a lone voice singing the union anthem "Bread and Roses" as others gradually join in. Warchus can't overcome the kitsch factor of these scenes but, as recycled as they are, they work. The same goes for the easy laughs of quaint, unworldly folks getting a raucous taste of risque gay subculture.

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The script's chief weakness is trying to cover too much ground. On one hand, there's the slow crumbling of the mineworkers' resolve as the strike drags on and Thatcher cuts off benefits to their families. On the other, there's the splintering factions of LGSM; the feeling in the gay community that the rising AIDS crisis is more urgent than that of the miners; Mark's disillusionment and fear for his health; and Joe's troubles with his uptight family. In addition, there's also a thread involving Jonathan's boyfriend Gethin (Andrew Scott), owner of the historic Gay's the Word bookshop in Bloomsbury, who has not set foot in his native Wales since being shunned by his family 16 years earlier.

While all this is solid narrative ground, it often feels too rushed to acquire much emotional weight. But Pride has genuine heart and real affection for its characters, which makes it easy to overlook the flaws and simply smile or tear up at the many pleasures. Within the limited scope given to each character, the terrific actors all deliver, from dependable veterans like Staunton, Nighy, Considine and West to the fresher faces who bring infectious vitality to the early rallying scenes.

At a whisker under two hours, the film is overlong, but it's a sharp-looking production, with some gorgeous aerial shots of the waterways and winding roads that cross the Welsh countryside. The '90s retro feeling is as much a part of Pride as the 1980s setting, yielding a nostalgic feel-good entertainment that's a significant improvement on Warchus' only previous film, the leaden 1999 Sam Shepard adaptation, Simpatico.

Production companies: Calamity Films, Pathe Films, BBC Films

Cast: Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Paddy Considine, George Mackay, Joseph Gilgun, Andrew Scott, Ben Schnetzer, Chris Overton, Faye Marsay, Jessica Gunning, Lisa Palfrey, Nia Gwynne, Kyle Rees, Menna Trussler

Director: Matthew Warchus

Screenwriter: Stephen Beresford

Producer: David Livingstone

Executive producers: Cameron McCracken, Christine Langan

Director of photography: Tat Radcliffe

Production designer: Simon Bowles

Costume designer: Charlotte Walter

Editor: Melanie Oliver

Music: Christopher Nightingale

Sales: Pathe International

No rating, 118 minutes