Different breeds of underdog find something worth celebrating in Matthew Warchus’s new period comedy.
The trouble with historical films is that spoiler alerts are redundant—we know the striking miners in Pride are doomed before their story begins. In spite of this, the film’s tone is infectiously triumphant. Set in Thatcher-era London and Wales, it dramatises the efforts of “Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners” (LGSM), a group of queer Londoners who raised funds and travelled west to help a working-class mining town entrenched in industrial action. Director Matthew Warchus admits he has technically made a classic romantic comedy, except the relationship comprises two communities rather than individuals. As the platonically polyamorous ‘romance’ unfurls, celebrations of unlikely solidarity take precedence over the bleak reality of historical events.
This isn’t to say the film is revisionist or simplistic. The humour never compromises Pride’s political edge and transitions are smooth between jocularity and earnestness. Urbane ‘fish out of water’ tropes dodge cliché and are balanced by sincerity. In an especially tender moment, homosexual Mark Ashton (Pride’s moral compass, played by Ben Schnetzer) recounts how his Northern Irish upbringing informed his activism, reasoning that all oppressed groups should band together. It’s a tenderness that avoids melodrama throughout; a noteworthy accomplishment for a film punctuated by impassioned speeches and impromptu sing-alongs.
But Pride isn’t all warmth and laughter. It opens in 1984, set amidst the stranglehold of HIV/AIDS hysteria and flagrant homophobia of tabloid news. A headline from The Sun proclaiming “Perverts Support the Pits” is true to historical events, as is a quote from Manchester Chief of Police James Anderton referring to AIDS survivors as “swirling about in a human cesspit of their own making.” Like Dallas Buyers Club and The Normal Heart, Pride’s treatment of those affected by the virus is conscientious, and its dealings with bigotry are righteously sensitive.
This righteousness never devolves into self-righteousness; a common pitfall for period pieces about civil rights. Pride trusts its audience enough not to mindlessly bulldoze discriminatory rhetoric on our behalf. While bigots are satisfyingly vilified, viewers aren’t spoon-fed ideology and the heroes are more than one-dimensional saints.
The ensemble cast makes room for a complex range of gay archetypes: the gentle introvert, the aging closet-case, the working-class queer; stories about whom are sometimes dismissed in favour of the more cinematically flamboyant youth. This variety doesn’t extend to lesbian characters, however. The acerbically charming Steph (played by Faye Marsay) jests that she alone constitutes the ‘L’ in LGSM. The patriarchal imbalance is historically accurate, and the group splintered to form “Lesbians Against Pit Closures” in response.
The Welsh side is most notably joined by Bill Nighy as Cliff, the socially inept club secretary. Other cast members, too numerous to list, also shine. The sheer quantity of memorable central characters is a testament to Stephen Beresford’s finely honed screenplay. It propels its cast through endless party and protest scenes without meandering, fuelled by a soundtrack of gay pop anthems. The result is at times stagy, but as one of the film’s many protest placards quips, “better blatant than latent.”
Pride is a well-balanced achievement in restraint: theatrical without hamminess, touching without mawkishness, and, most importantly, hopeful without naïveté. The film’s optimism seems to stem from its knowingness of things to come. As the miners lose their battle we take solace in the looming social watershed for their allies—the flame of one struggle catches on the embers of another.