Published on September 22nd, 2014 | by Conor Smyth0
Pride works – and it really works – because it finds a way to perfectly be the kind of film you think it’s going to be while also offering surprising shades of feeling. The story of a real-life alliance between striking miners and gay and lesbian activists in Thatcherite Britain has a colourful, slightly cartoonish anti-Establishment bounce in its step, familiar from other British heart-warmers like Billy Elliot and The Boat That Rocked (with whom it shares Bill Nighy). But writer Stephen Beresford and Matthew Warchus are generous and compassionate in their treatment of characters and their dignity, producing a celebration of working-class solidarity and friendship for politically conservative times.
John (George MacKay), a wallflower from the Bromley suburbs, is our conduit. The film opens with him tentatively joining a Gay Pride march, and follows his initiation into a small group of activists based in London’s Gay’s The Word bookshop, run by Welsh exile Gethin (Andrew Scott) and panto dame Jonathan (a wide-eyed, bushy-haired Dominic West). Their de facto leader, the charismatic Mark (Ben Schnetzer), is eager to support the country’s miners, currently in the middle of their long, brutal strike of 1984. An ‘enemy of my enemy sort of thing. With the mineworkers’ union reticent about accepting help from queers, the officially-monikered Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners pick a random Welsh village and decide to just give them the money. A mild-mannered Union representative (Paddy Considine) invites them to meet the Valley locals, forcing both sides to overcome their mutual distrust. United in their shared underdog status, the two communities soon develop strong bonds of friendship and understanding, even while the collaboration provokes disdain from those eager to sabotage their progress.
One review called the film a ‘hen party’, which gets at its raucous, broad tone. Much of this is down to Imelda Staunton and Jessica Gunning’s pair of Welsh matriarchs, cooing over their shiny new lesbian friends and firmly steering a respectful civility between hosts and visitors. But there’s an unfashionable political earnestness anchoring the silliness, an understanding of industrial stakes and a shameless appreciation of trade unionism embodied in Considine’s soft-spoken but utterly humane Dai, who graciously accepts honest allies where he finds them. The film’s even kind to the necessary villains: when Joe’s mother finds out about his sexuality and his activism, she comes off not as some raging homophobe, but a mother terrified of a future of secrecy and alienation for her son. The real villain of the piece, the prime minister, haunts the background in radio and television clips. The various understated but moving performances on the film’s margins all contribute to the sense of an authentic historical moment populated by admirable but emotionally complex people. There is a slightly ramshackle quality to how the story and the different character arcs play out, but it suits the ambivalent progress of their struggle and the transitory nature of ‘runaway’ life.
The film ends on a note of historical triumph, but also caution. The comrades and friends reunite for London’s ’85 Gay Pride march but the organisers object to their banners. People are tired of politics, warns a clipboard jockey, they just want to party. The moment offers a glimpse into the future – the self-confessed post-ideology of Blairism, the waning of the unions and the transformation of Pride into a branded entertainment event. In its own way, the film insists on an urgent and slightly subversive politics of joy. It’s not just that having a good time is often only possible because of the hard work of prior engagement (it’s hard to enjoy a night at the club when you’re expected a police raid any time soon), but, further, that the highs and lows of a virtuous and shared struggle may make different, more moral, kinds of connection possible. Conor Smyth