The exhilarating, bird-flipping British film Brassed Off is about the systematic destruction of the coal-mining industry in northern England by the Thatcher government in the last decade. It's set in the fictitious Yorkshire town of Grimley, where a profitable pit is on the verge of closure. Though there is still a vote to be taken by the union local to decide whether to struggle on a bit or accept a payoff, the writing is already on the wall--Grimley will soon be a ghost town. Everyone's broke, marriages are ending, loan sharks are demanding payment, too much beer's being drunk. Tragedy looms.
The film is, by the way, a musical.
Well, sort of a musical. Apparently, community brass bands are not uncommon in small, working-class British towns. Brassed Off centers on Grimley's "Colliery Band," led with tireless enthusiasm by Danny (Pete Postlethwaite), a retired miner who's begun to notice black in his hanky when he coughs. Danny's son Phil (Stephen Tompkinson) is a trombonist, but he has other things on his mind--his wife's threatening to take the kids and leave, and he's reduced to working as a party clown, though he isn't feeling very funny.
Plainly, the band won't survive the mine closure, and several members, weary of paying the dues, are in favor of getting it over with. They're about to quit when a gorgeous young woman, Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald), a local girl who's back in town from the university, joins as a flYgelhorn player. Suddenly, all the men in the band pay up, and their wives take a renewed interest in the band's activities. Before long, Gloria is romantically involved with Andy (Ewan McGregor), a handsome kid in the band.
The film's writer-director, an affable north-country fellow named Mark Herman, recently told me he had long wanted to make a film on the mine shutdowns, but couldn't find an angle until he read a newspaper story about the disbanding of a colliery band after a pit closure. From this, Herman shaped a story of an underdog band about to break up, trying to win a national championship and play Royal Albert Hall--Rocky with a serious social context, and stirring, joyous horn music. Principals excepted, the band is played by the real-life Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band, which, according to Herman, went through similar experiences.
Herman, whose only previous feature credit was a failed sex farce called Blame It on the Bellboy, recognized that this device would keep the material from becoming too depressing to watch.
He might have had a fine career at Warner Bros. during the Depression. In the early '30s, Warner cultivated an image as Hollywood's "socially conscious" studio, producing numerous films on topical subjects--ripped from today's headlines, as they used to put it. To a considerable extent, this was a pose, a moral high ground from which to sell slickly produced, commercial melodramas which watered down or simplified such themes as crime (The Public Enemy), prison life (20,000 Years in Sing Sing), xenophobia (Black Legion) and Southern bigotry (They Won't Forget). With 1935's Black Fury, the studio even took on union corruption in the coal-mining industry--the film was banned in Pennsylvania.
Apart from Herman's openly anti-Thatcher stance--Warner never would have allowed such blunt partisanship--Brassed Off fits into this mold. In the tradition of the genre, Brassed Off eschews digging too deeply into the complexities of its issue. The Tories' mine closures were a transparently ugly, ruthless campaign of government union-busting. That's enough for the film--there's no exploration of the possibility that the dangerous, unhealthful and environmentally unsound coal industry might have been headed for obsolescence anyway. The indignation over the loss of the mine is somehow never reconciled with Danny's black lung. But since--as we are informed before the opening credits--the Tories replaced the coal mines largely with nuclear power plants, it's hard not to join in the film's rage.
The lively bite of the dialogue and acting are infectious, too--angry and intense, yet so charged up with humor and warmth that you love being in the company of these people. As poor Phil, the most shocked and ravaged of the characters, Tompkinson is like one big broken heart, pumping out emotion. Yet he isn't a whiner. There's a wistful sense of strained buoyancy to him--you can see how he could get by as a clown. It's a fine performance in the film's toughest role.
McGregor, of Trainspotting and Emma, has quickly established star presence for himself. With Andy's looks and intelligence and boyish vulnerability, it's perfectly believable that Gloria would fall for him, and McGregor and the lushly beautiful Fitzgerald have an easy, unforced chemistry.
Best of all, Pete Postlethwaite, with his lovely, mellow voice and iconic peasant's face, underplays heroically. When Danny dismisses his musicians' worries by insisting that nothing matters but music, Postlethwaite doesn't play it as driven aestheticism, but as matter-of-fact morale resuscitation. Danny knows that the fate of Grimley, as a community, is already foregone. At this point, nothing does matter but music.
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It's this undercurrent of melancholic--but defiant--fatalism that saves Brassed Off from that vapidity of many other gonna-fly-now uplift movies. As a social drama, it's a wry elegy, not a call to arms. It isn't perfect--Herman's script takes some missteps into the hackneyed, or into the clumsily melodramatic. Yet overall, like the band's swan song, the film is a deeply graceful concession to defeat. The Grimley Colliery Band blows raspberries at the government--clear, pure, spine-tingling raspberries--that put their target to shame.
Directed by Mark Herman; with Pete Postlethwaite, Tara Fitzgerald, Ewan McGregor, Stephen Tompkinson and Jim Carter.