BRASSED OFF (UK, 1996) *** 1/2
The film could be called a proletarian political protest musical. Not that it has songs and dances: it is about Yorkshire coal miners who, in the 1992-93 period, are having their colliery shut down, among many other closures, in the government's move to eliminate an uneconomical industry. Says one of its bureaucrats: "Coal is dead."
The locale is the town of Grimley, an apt (cf. "grim") imaginary name. To be made redundant means awful misery to the men and their families. The locals are brassed off, meaning pissed off, angry. They and the film hate Tories, Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister whose reign (1979-1990) bequeathed Thatcherism to the next, also Conservative government, headed by PM John Major, whose name I do not think hearing even once in the movie.
In the UK. films have dealt more than in other cinemas with workers who lose their jobs. Labor problems are universal, of course, but, in our time not the subject of many films. In the Ukraine and Russia for example, the underpaid or unpaid Donbas basin coal miners have made headlines, but to my knowledge have been in newsreel footage rather than in features.
The Grimleyites are passionately proud of their miners' brass band. Created in 1881, it has had a record of wins in band competitions, and survived through wars and disasters. The end of the colliery will also mean the end of the ensemble, but the band plays on. Its members, inspired by conductor Danny (Pete Postlethwaite) still rehearse for the national brass bands competition.
Another fine film with a brass band, the delicious and kindly ironical The Fireman's Ball (1967) was made by Milos Forman Czechoslovakia during the old Communist days. If it has any political symbolism, it is well hidden. Brassed Off, on the other hand, speads its political protest thick and wide, mixing funny or humorous moments with somberness, drama, near-tragedy and good music.
During a rehearsal, in walks in Gloria. It is the return of the native after years away from Grimley. Gloria is beautiful, has an enchanting smile and belongs to the Pantheon of cutes. I thought that actor Tara Fitzgerald was a new face, until some digging reminded me that I had seen her in The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill...and in Sirens. In the latter she was clergyman Hugh Grant's wife, first mousy then "liberated." It was hard to make a connection between that polite nude-fest and Brassed Off. My, what a difference clothes make.
Gloria a flugelhorn player, gently wishes to join the band, an all-male bastion. She tries out by playing a transcription for horn and band of Joaquin Rodrigo's guitar-and-orchestra Concierto de Aranjuez (called Concert for Orange Juice by Danny). Even for non-fans of bands Gloria's playing is a a thing of beauty which elicits first-rate playing by the musicians. The whole passage is irresistibly lovely. (A real colliery band provided the music).
In a long string of cleverly but ungimmickally edited scenes we follow the miners, their families, their problems, the bosses, some individual lives, political meetings, voting and more... A few random examples:
When a bus takes the players to the semifinals in another town, some wives do something unusual: they come along as supporters but in reality to keep an eye on their men, as Gloria is so lovely.
In that town, the marching of the bands is splendidly filmed, with great music and documentary-like cutaways to the appreciative audiences lining the streets.
Gloria has renewed acquaintance with old flame Andy (Ewan McGregor of Trainspotting and Emma), the youngest member of the group. He discovers that she works "for bloody management." (The lack of this knowledge by others is one of the film's innocuous improbabilities, since Grimley is the kind of place where everyone knows about everyone else). The young people make their peace, Andy walks Gloria home. "Do you want to come up for coffee?" Andy: I don't drink coffee." Gloria:" I haven't got any." A witty, concise dialogue.
After a group of "activist" miners lose a vote, they are filmed as they come towards the camera. Their walk is shot in slow motion, but minimally slow, and with no talk. The sight is one of sad, tired people. This is A-plus photography.
What is remarkable about this film is the large number of scenes and the fact that every single one of them counts. Remarkable too is the quality of everyone's acting. Or the unglamorous faces except for the Andy-Gloria couple. As unglamorous as any is the epicenter of the movie, Pete Postlethwaite whom you may have seen in supporting roles in films such as Mel Gibson's Hamlet, Alien 3, The Last of the Mohicans, in bigger parts in the Distant Voices, Still Lives (a superb film) or In the Name of the Father (Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actor, as the father of Daniel Day-Lewis) or in The Usual Suspects.
Here, as Phil's dad, as an unshakable believer in the band and in the primacy of people over business interests, as an older miner with black lung disease, he does not dazzle but he touches you. In fact the entire movie is affecting. You have to be a diehard Tory and/or an exclusive devotee of mindless action pictures and/or very young, to remain unmoved.
In the US the film was released in late May 1997, but it came out in Britain on November 1, 1996. I would not be surprised if it added some votes to the victory of the Labour Party, as it is an audience-influencing movie, especially since its basic facts ( mine closures)are a fact. You can even say that it is an effectively manipulative film. Nothing has been left out, from sentimentality to picturesqueness. There are no bad people among the miners. Cannily, the management is shown as cold but not as truly villainous. Except for the sincere but corny Hollywoodian finale, little comes through as blatantly calculated or as loaded dice.
Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart would have loved Brassed Off, even though it is far more realistic than their films. And, to be fair, its manipulations of the public are far less obvious than those in thousands of Hollywood movies, including classics, including Capra's.