Matthew Warchus turns an inspirational true story of Thatcher-era community activism into a deft crowdpleaser.
The true tale of how two very different communities came together in London and Wales during the lengthy U.K. miners’ strike of 1984-5 makes for an irresistible crowdpleaser in “Pride,” the sophomore feature from garlanded British theater director Matthew Warchus. The story of the little-remembered Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners movement (LGSM) plays so many inspirational, feel-good notes, the only real surprise is that it’s taken three decades to be unearthed for cinematic purposes. Word of mouth could easily propel the comedy-drama to positively sinful success, especially in its home market, Blighty.
The U.K. has a history of mining gold from stories of personal growth rooted in traditional communities, notably the fictional “The Full Monty” and “Billy Elliot,” and it’s this tradition that has brought forth “Pride,” the first produced feature script by actor Stephen Beresford. And he has found commercially astute collaborators in Warchus and debuting producer David Livingstone, who for many years orchestrated the marketing campaigns for Universal-owned, London-based hitmakers Working Title (of the Richard Curtis canon).
The action begins in June 1984 at the London Gay Pride march. Suburban, closeted, 20-year-old trainee chef Joe (George MacKay, here playing the film’s principal invented character) nervously joins the throng, and is swept up by a politicized group of friends who continue the party at the Gay’s the Word bookstore near Russell Square. It’s here that LGSM is born, led by charismatic Northern Irishman Mark (U.S.-born, U.K.-trained Ben Schnetzer, “The Book Thief”) and Northern English leftie Mike (Joseph Gilgun), with support from a diverse group including bookstore owner Gethin (Andrew Scott), flamboyant actor Jonathan (Dominic West) and the feisty Steph (Faye Marsay), who at this point remains the token lesbian. Asked why they should support homophobic miners, Mark reminds everyone that they share a common alliance of enemies: prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the police and the right-wing tabloid press.
Officials at the National Union of Mineworkers don’t seem interested in support from a group of stigmatized outsiders, so the LGSM goes directly to one mining community — the Dulais Valley lodge in Onllwyn, South Wales — whose genial representative, Dai (Paddy Considine), hesitatingly welcomes them. The ingredients are in place for multiple fish-out-of-water scenarios as the communities intermingle, and while some broad strokes won’t be to everybody’s taste — West strutting his stuff on the bar of the Dulais community center to Shirley and Company’s disco-tastic “Shame Shame Shame” might have been devised with one eye on the trailer — overall the film is so warmhearted, its themes of friendship and mutual respect so resonant, that few will begrudge it such heightened moments.
Accusations of sentimentality are also unlikely to stick, partly thanks to an intelligently chosen ensemble of actors who root all the characters in relatable reality. Leading the charge for infectious energy is Imelda Staunton as Dulais community organizer Hefina, and Menna Trussler as mischievous, elderly Gwen, while Scott, Considine and Bill Nighy, as a mild-mannered old miner with a poetic bent, bring particular emotional depth to the material. Conflict is kept bubbling thanks to the sour-faced disdain of the hissable Maureen (Lisa Palfrey), here presented as the principal opposition to the “perverted” Londoners among the Dulais community.
Kudos also to Beresford’s script, which forgivably condenses what was in fact a national movement into one London-based group, and expertly juggles such a large number of characters and story elements: the gay man who reconnects with his estranged family; the onset of AIDS; the self-actualization of a modest miner’s wife. Although the defeat of the miners by the Thatcher Government in March 1985 risks ending the film on a down note, a surprising coda provides a barnstorming climax that should see tear ducts spilling over among any audience members not already weeping.
Warchus’ last outing as filmmaker was the under-achieved “Simpatico” (1999), adapted from the Sam Shepard stageplay. Successes on the stage including “God of Carnage” and “Matilda: The Musical” have kept him plenty busy in the interim, and if he has been biding his time looking for the right vehicle to reboot his film career, he has certainly chosen wisely, here showcasing unfussy direction that steps back to facilitate the actors’ rich immersion in their roles. There may, however, be another long break before his next film: He’s just been announced as Kevin Spacey’s replacement as artistic director of London’s Old Vic, beginning next year.