Glitter and grit: when gay rights activists allied with the miners

Pride takes a subject that might be considered earnest or marginal and smuggles it through in jazzy, feel-good colours.

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Pride (15)
dir: Matthew Warchus

“There’s got to be some kind of compromise,” says a character in Pride, a film about the alliance in the mid-1980s between gay rights campaigners and Welsh miners. “That’s the way you get things done.”

It’s a philosophy embodied by the movie, which inserts into one end of the patented Britcom Machine the ingredients for a dry, political period piece, only for a slick, razzle-dazzle comedy to emerge out of the other. That contraption has mangled many projects, but the promise of ending up with a Billy Elliot or a Full Monty keeps it in service. Both of those films sacrificed some grit in favour of glitter, and Pride has also acquired its share of incongruities on the journey to the marketplace. Rendering this material fit for mass consumption is a triumph of sorts, but at what cost?

The theatre director Matthew Warchus may not be a sophisticated film-maker but there can be no faulting his cheerleading skills. As a guitar-driven score with a high indie twang factor rings out, his camera thrusts enthusiastically forward. It rushes across the suburban living room where sheepish 20-year-old Joe (George MacKay) is eyeing the clock in anticipation of attending, secretly, his first Gay Pride march. And it glides towards the face of Mark (Ben Schnetzer), so transfixed by the morning news bulletin about the miners’ strike that he doesn’t register the pretty one-night-stand bidding a plaintive farewell over his shoulder.

Once Mark has an idea, such as using that day’s march to collect money and show solidarity with the miners, it is bound to happen. It would just be nice if the film varied the language it uses to convey his light-bulb moments. On four separate occasions, we get the slow zoom on to his face, the dip in sound and the penny-dropping look in Schnetzer’s eyes. The feeling of a film playing it safe can’t help but be heightened when its characters are taking such risks.

Soon, Mark and his comrades, including Joe, are piling into a minibus driven by Jonathan (Dominic West) to the village in the Dulais Valley that has been the beneficiary of their fundraising. They are welcomed by the sprightly Hefina (Imelda Staunton) and the softly spoken Cliff (Bill Nighy). After some initial suspicion, the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners constituency wins over most of the villagers. But even devout believers in the power of dance may emerge a bit fuzzy as to how Jonathan’s disco moves persuade these gruff and sceptical men to drop their defences and start cheering. The point is better made elsewhere. When the group first arrives, the fluffy-haired Gwen (a divine Menna Trussler) calls out to her colleague: “Your gays are here!” By the time she’s attending her first Pride march the following year, her tune has changed. “Where are my lesbians?” she trills.

Pride takes a subject that might be considered earnest or marginal and smuggles it through in jazzy, feel-good colours. This is mirrored in the structure of the jokes favoured by the screenwriter Stephen Beresford. When he’s not using the Alan Bennett technique of turning a place-name into a punchline (Rhyl, Bromley and Accrington all get their moment), he is drawn to gags that promise prurience only to deliver comic naivety. When a woman starts to ask two gay men a personal question they sigh in anticipation. But in this and many other instances, the subject is revealed as innocuous. She doesn’t care about which man is top or bottom – she wants to know who does the housework. The joke is always on us for expecting that matters of sexuality will revolve exclusively around sex.

The formula wears thin after a while. It seems no one does anything that can’t be broken down into a one-liner or a character beat. (Ironically, the biggest impression is made by the actor Russell Tovey, who does devastating work in no more than a minute of screentime.) And doesn’t anyone get into bed for reasons other than a cuddle? It’s troubling that sex is shown only as the cause of laughter or Aids. Though it’s understandable that Pride should aspire to reach the largest audience possible, there has to be a middle ground between scaring the horses and force-feeding them sugar cubes. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 10 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Britain in meltdown