Pride: Sweet and Sour History

It’s always dangerous to add too much sugar to your cup of bitter historical fact. For many filmmakers, however, the temptation is too great to resist—after all, a neatly shaped and heartwarming narrative is likely to do far better at the box office than a somber reflection on the usually messy truth. In Pride, released on DVD in the U.S. on the 23rd of December, director Matthew Warchus falls into this predictable trap. The result is certainly moving, but his chosen subject deserves more honesty, and even an impressive cast can’t totally save their film from the saccharine.

Pride’s subject is the British miners’ strike of 1984-5 and the unlikely support lent to it from a section of the gay and lesbian community. Warchus follows the true story pretty faithfully: a gay Irishman named Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) bands together a gang of activists to raise money for the striking miners, driven by a desire to connect two of the most demonized and oppressed groups in 1980s Britain. Unable to convince the National Union of Miners to accept his help, Mark ends up leading his crew to the only place that will take it: Onllwyn, a small mining village in Wales. Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) faces a rocky reception. Many villagers are openly hostile, but gradually the group wins over the town and an alliance is formed. It is wonderful that a film has been made about this partnership, and inspiring that such a stellar crop of actors signed up to take part—Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, and Paddy Considine should be enough to draw significant audiences. Ultimately, though, the great cast makes it even more disappointing that Pride doesn’t do more with its material.

The film is a comedy, and its humor comes from very formulaic places. Flamboyant London “gays” meeting rural Welsh miners is a prime candidate for odd-couple misunderstandings, and we get plenty of them here, as well as the familiar trope of inappropriate but well-meaning little old ladies asking outrageous questions. It’s not that the jokes are never funny—they just don’t veer away from the predictable. Stephen Beresford’s script is rarely subtle and the LGSM members sometimes seem to blend together, despite great performances from West, Joe Gilgun (recognisable from This Is England, a much better film also set in Thatcher’s Britain) and Faye Marsay. LGSM’s female activists are especially poorly drawn, frequently irritating the others with their “distracting” feminism. Such a lack of respect is unfortunate in a story like Pride, which you’d hope would be beyond such lazy stereotypes.

This is not to say that the film is entirely unsuccessful. The strongest moments come in its depictions of the hardships facing gay people in the ’80s: passersby spit on them during a pride parade, and even when LGSM wins the affection of most of Onllwyn, some bigots stillsee the activists as “perverts.” These moments are certainly emotionally affecting, and a reminder that the prevailing treatment of gay and lesbian people was very bad very recently. It is also difficult to ignore, though, the different levels of progress in the way contemporary British society views homosexuality and the way it views the working classes and trade unions. We can watch moments like the parade spitting and feel good about how far our cultures have come—homophobia is of course still a very real problem, even if, in Britain and the US, it is tolerated far less in mainstream society than it was just a few decades ago. Anti-union sentiments, however, remain commonplace.

The damage done by Thatcher’s government has never truly been reversed, and classism is as real now as it was in the time of Pride. Here the sugary nature of the film starts to grate—yes, the coming together of two oppressed groups offers cause for celebration, but the miners’ strike was ultimately crushed, and the resulting devastation in mining communities is still evident today. Knowing this makes it hard to fully embrace the sweetness and good cheer of Dominic West disco-dancing or Imelda Staunton enjoying a gay bar. There is always room for optimism in art, but diluting the stakes of a very real national trauma in order to tell a happier story doesn’t quite sit right. Pride treats the miners’ strike like a singular moment in time, a vehicle for a triumphalist and jokey narrative about the progress of gay rights. When the consequences of Thatcher’s suppression can still be felt by workers and unions across Britain, that choice seems at best misguided and at worst deliberately evasive.

I am glad this story was told, and that it attracted a glamorous cast who, by all accounts, did their real-life counterparts justice. It’s just a shame that some deeper truths were glossed over in the process.

Grade: B-

An important story not given the weight it deserves.