Matthew Warchus’ comedy-drama Pride was one of the best-reviewed British films of 2014, so unsurprisingly it performed relatively well at the box office, even though the lucrative American market remained resistant to its charms. Set in the mid-1980s, the story is based on the real life activities of the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners group (LGSM), which was formed and led by Mark Ashton (played here by an exuberant Ben Schnetzer). The LGSM raised money to support striking coal miners, and in doing so forged strong bonds with several mining communities in South Wales, though Stephen Beresford’s screenplay judiciously simplifies the story so that the group travel to just one village in the film. The group’s members felt a degree of kinship with the miners due in part to their shared left-wing political beliefs, but also because they felt both groups were being simultaneously misrepresented by the media, and that both were being subjected to persecution by the police and the government. As the film makes clear, the offering made was both generous and genuine and also had the knock-on effect of LGBT campaigners receiving support within the Labour Party from the National Union of Mineworkers, which led directly to a resolution committing to support LGBT rights in 1985.
It’s largely an upbeat, uplifting film that milks the culture clash at the heart of the story – reserved, straight villagers mixing with flamboyant, gay Londoners – for all it’s worth. Paddy Considine’s union leader Dai Donovan is the man with the task of introducing the LGSM activists to his local community, many members of which are openly hostile to the Londoners, but although scenes set in the local working man’s club start off frostily the atmosphere soon thaws and the suspicion of some of the villagers gradually disappears (except in one or two cases, but even their resistance fizzles out). There are plenty of friendly figures on both sides and gradually relationships begin to form and strengthen: soon enough most of the talk is of solidarity, and the mining community is clearly appreciative of the help and support, which was in short supply at the time. We also briefly see the villagers as similar fish-out-of-water types in London, where the women in particular – led by Imelda Staunton’s activist Hefina Headon – are titilated by the sights and sounds of the gay scene.
Most of the characters are based on real people, and the film packs in a huge number, with nearly all of them enjoying some kind of satisfying story arc. In terms of the LGSM members in addition to Ashton there’s Joe Gilgun – who has been consistently excellent in Shane Meadows’ superb This Is England series – as plain-speaking right-hand man Mike Jackson, Faye Marsay as founder member Steph Chambers, Dominic West as Jonathan Blake (who was one of the first people to be diagnosed as HIV positive in the UK and yet celebrated his 66th birthday earlier this year) and Andrew Scott as bookshop owner Gethin (Jonathan’s partner, and a character who reconnects with Wales and his mother during the film after several years of estrangement). In the Welsh community the notables include Considines’ Donovan, Staunton’s Headon and Jessica Gunning in an energetic turn as Siân James, the wife of a men’s union leader who in real life became MP for Swansea East for ten years before stepping down earlier this year. Linking the groups together are two fictional characters at opposite ends of the age spectrum, both of whom are gay and are struggling to come out: for the LGSM there’s George MacKay as Joe ‘Bromley’ Cooper, whose middle class parents react badly when they discover the nature of their son’s sexuality, and in Wales there’s Bill Nighy’s Cliff Barry, an elderly leader of the men’s union with an interest in social history. (Briefly, I have to say that Nighy delivers a perfect Welsh accent.)
There were times when I was worried that Pride would struggle to juggle so many characters adequately, and that all their linked and disparate stories couldn’t possibly be resolved by the end, but Beresford and Warchus somehow manage to pull this off within two hours and it’s all tied together very neatly; it may be an example of screenwriting at its most insistently convenient but it’s a commendable achievement nonetheless. The film manages to entertain and inform while also, it would seem, doing some justice to the struggles faced by gay people in London in the mid-1980s, fending off the twin threats of the Thatcher government and, generally-speaking, a more homophobic public. We get a sense of the kinds of attacks endured by LGSM members at the time, verbal and physical, though as a crowd-pleasing, upbeat comedy-drama it’s noticable that certain unpalatable events are avoided: for example at one point Gethin is badly beaten up late at night, but the actual attack isn’t shown on camera. The threat of AIDS also increases as the film goes on, but due to the timeframe of the story (just over a year, by the looks of things), it’s only mentioned in passing in a few scenes and we do not see anyone die of a related illness. The end credits, which detail the lives of the key players after the strikes ended, will sadden as much as they inspire, and if you happen to get hold of the DVD I recommend the accompanying short documentary, which interviews many of those still alive today alongside the actors playing them. Pride is well-written and well-acted, and is a suitable celebration of the achievements of the LGSM, packed with good humour, real heart and a strong political message (even if the political arguments and in-fighting is toned down); it would make for an excellent double bill with Mark Herman’s Brassed Off, which focuses on the knock-on effect of the miners’ strike on individuals and families, yet is similarly uplifting. It’s a shame that Pride received a ’15’ certificate in the UK and that its release in the US was dogged by controversy: disgracefully the US DVD makes no mention of the gay content, the standard description of ‘a London-based group of gay and lesbian activists’ was changed to ‘a group of London-based activists’, and a lesbian and gay banner was airbrushed out of a photograph on the back cover. This is 2015, isn’t it?
Directed by: Matthew Warchus.
Written by: Stephen Beresford.
Starring: Ben Schnetzer, Joe Gilgun, Imelda Staunton, Paddy Considine, Bill Nighy, George MacKay, Dominic West, Andrew Scott, Jessica Gunning, Faye Marsay, Freddie Fox, Liz White, Karina Fernandez, Rhodri Meilir.
Cinematography: Tat Radcliffe.
Editing: Melanie Oliver.
Music: Christopher Nightingale, Various.
Running Time: 120 minutes.