Monday, September 29, 2014

New movie review: Pride

The members of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners roll into town in Pride.
The Margaret Thatcher effect was felt in every corner of the United Kingdom. There were few aspects of daily life over which the Iron Lady’s policies did not run roughshod. Civil rights were curtailed, labor unions were looked down upon, and a general mood of hostility toward “the others” persisted. Groups who stood outside the dominant culture were seen as a threat to the gentility to which the nation aspired. Enter the coal miners’ strike of 1984 and with it the advocacy group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.

The new English-Welsh co-production Pride tells the true story of a band of queer activists in England who saw the striking miners and recognized in them a kindred spirit, another group fighting for its rights and drawing the ire of the mainstream. It is difficult to view films like this outside the context of the current American political climate, as the Supreme Court considers gay marriage and the gay rights movement gains traction in ways that would have been inconceivable just a decade ago.

In that context, the film delivers a vital message with positivity, energy, and an unwavering faith in the power of social justice, but a movie can only coast so far on audience good will. The filmmakers would like Pride to be a Full Monty­-style crowd-pleaser, and there is no doubt the film is capable of putting a smile on your face and perhaps bringing a tear to your eye. The story of working-class people of different backgrounds coming together to affect change is a tried and true cinematic formula, but what this movie lacks is any sense of struggle.

A generally upbeat mood and an atmosphere of hope and optimism directly conflict with what we know about the plight of the miners during their year-long strike, and apart from one militantly homophobic villager, the members of LGSM seemed to have lucked out in throwing their support behind the most open-minded mining community this side of a Simpsons gag.

As the miners come to accept the gay and lesbian group into their town, they dance and drink and host late-night slumber parties, and the whole thing looks like a load of fun. Even when the story takes a turn down one or two dark alleys, the narrative looks away before we discover what is at the end, blunting the impact of the blow and depriving the film of the emotional heft it desperately needs.

Director Matthew Warchus, making just his second film, and first-time screenwriter Stephen Beresford fail to imbue the story with any meaning beyond its surface themes of acceptance and solidarity. Warchus made his name directing theater and recently was at the helm of the critically lauded musical Matilda. Pride has the rhythm and structure of a musical, highlighting the flashy setpieces and sidelining the smaller moments that could have added much-needed depth to the story and its characters.

The cast is game, and Paddy Considine (Hot Fuzz, The World’s End) is a standout as a civic leader who brings the gay group to town, but so much of the story is told in either musical montages or big speeches that there is precious little room for character development. The film rarely stops to catch its breath, and while the actors are uniformly good, they struggle to keep pace with a story that seems intent on leaving them behind.

The film’s best scene is also its most quiet. After a night of self-discovery and growth, when he finally feels comfortable in his own skin, one of the activists returns home to find his mother and father have discovered his secret – he is gay. He is given a verbal dressing down by his father, which we see but mostly cannot hear. When next he appears, tears well in his eyes as he sits on his bed. Then, his mother comes in the room.

Like a protracted good-cop, bad-cop routine, she gently explains her disappointment in her son and her concerns for his future. “It is such a hard life,” she says, as though he is making a choice. She tells her 20-year-old son he is too young to know what he wants – again, implying choice – and that she did not know what she wanted when she was his age. She cries for him and probably not just a little for herself. The shamed son falls into her arms, the tears now flowing freely, and the message is clear. In being gay, he has made a poor decision, and his family will help him fix it, whether he wants that or not.

It is a painful, heartbreaking scene, full of the kind of raw emotion and deep wounds missing from the rest of the picture. Contrast it with another sequence in which a character goes to visit the conservative Christian mother to whom he has not spoken in 16 years. He arrives at her home, and when she opens the door, the film cuts away to the next scene, too afraid to show us what may follow. Time and again, the film shuts its eyes before things get too uncomfortable or offers a punchline and a laugh in place of true understanding.

It is possible I am being overly harsh on a genuinely funny and entertaining movie that likely succeeds in most of its aspirations, but Pride is a missed opportunity. Its message of strength in solidarity is so vital that one wishes it had been shared with more honesty and forthrightness. Yet, if it takes a lighthearted approach to get more people to listen, then I will not begrudge the filmmakers that. I can forgive the medium to hear the message.

See it? Yes.

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