There’s a lot to enjoy in “Brassed Off,” but most of it is in the first half. This well-played, often very sparky dramedy about the shenanigans in a northern brass band composed of miners threatened with pit closure gets a bad attack of social realism in the latter stages that rocks the crowded craft. European auds may respond better to its mixture of character comedy and political sermonizing, but some discreet trimming may be necessary for it to find a niche in North America. Pic will need inventive marketing everywhere to overcome popular prejudices against the seemingly downbeat setting and brass-band music in general.
Despite its flaws, the movie is still streets ahead of British writer-director Mark Herman’s freshman effort, “Blame It on the Bellboy,” a pratfall-studded, Venice-set farce starring Dudley Moore that tanked in ’92. Here, Yorkshire-born Herman has come up with a neat idea in a setting he knows and understands, and the script, helped along by an excellent selection of Brit character actors, has a generally taught, well-worked-over feel.
Set in the fictional Yorkshire town of Grimley (a ref to Grimethorpe, whose famed band supplied the soundtrack and many musician extras), film takes place during 1992, when the Conservative government launched another of its periodic programs of pit closures. Heart of the community is the Grimley Colliery Band, conducted by the proud, stubborn Danny (Pete Postlethwaite), who’s determined to override his players’ feelings that if the pit closes, so should the band.
On the eve of the band’s entry in the national semifinals, its numbers are swollen by the arrival of looker Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald), who plays a mean flugelhorn and immediately reinvigorates the slightly tired all-male ranks. Why the nattily dressed Gloria suddenly has returned to her hometown is a mystery, not least to her former b.f. Andy (Ewan McGregor).
After a lively first half, with plenty of rich characterization, gruff northern humor and good backgrounding of all the many roles, the tone darkens as the threat of pit closure starts to cause social and economic strains within the community.
The strength of Herman’s script is the way in which he juggles the large cast without losing the main dramatic thread, transforming a movie that could easily have been dominated by its name players (Postlethwaite, McGregor, Fitzgerald) but ends up a true ensemble portrait of a community, wives included. Where it doesn’t quite take flight is in its early promise of music being the defining, and elevating, force of the characters’ lives. Though the point is repeatedly stressed in their actions (down to one guy spending his last money on a new trombone), it’s dampened emotionally by the movie’s increasingly social-realist tone, which in the final reel becomes plain political grandstanding.
Playing is excellent down the line, with bigscreen newcomer Stephen Tompkinson (known from the British TV newsroom comedy series “Drop the Dead Donkey”) a standout as Danny’s weak son Phil, and character veterans Philip Jackson and Jim Carter carving believable northern working-class types. As Andy , McGregor (the lead in “Trainspotting”) is relatively subdued; Fitzgerald, however, proves once again a striking screen presence and Postlethwaite brings natural dignity to the part of the band’s conductor.
Lensing on a variety of locations around Yorkshire is bright and well-composed, helped along by Michael Ellis’ brisk cutting. The band sequences are notable for their verisimilitude in playing (merging actors with real musicians) and Postlethwaite’s conducting.