In Margaret Thatcher’s 1984, there was no group more despised than miners, on strike and avowed socialists. Gays and lesbians didn’t yet sink to their level of opprobrium, but Section 28 was around the corner, and besides, the age of consent for homosexuals was twenty-one (and sixteen for everyone else). Pride, directed by Matthew Warchus, tells the story of what at a glance looks like a most unlikely alliance. As written by Stephen Beresford, Pride also tries to forge alliances: between agitprop and the ebullient British working class comedy of the Billy Elliot variety. The results are conventional, often awkward, and quite sexless; there isn’t a single device that Warchus won’t use for audience manipulation: it’s the Mrs Miniver of the Labour-queer set. It’s also, improbably, wonderful despite itself.
When Pride opens, the Thatcher government has sequestered the union’s funds, forcing it to rely on donations. Mark Ashton has the idea at a gay pride march to collect money on behalf of the miners. The film is shrewd about withholding Mark’s ambition; there’s no way to know if the motion is well-intentioned folly or a political masterstroke, especially if the responses from the London gay community are any indication (and Beresford’s script elides Mark’s leadership in the Young Communist League). They remember being called poofters and beaten up by men who looked like the miners. Still, Mark lobbies hard. As played by The Book Thief‘s Ben Schnetzer always holding a cigarette and boasting a perfect glimmering pompadour doused in what looks like petrol, Mark is the kind of natural leader who exhausts friends’ patience but not their affection. The fledgling Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners comprises a fractious bunch: besieged sidekick Mike (Joe Gilgun); an unformed and not out to this parents cooking school student named Joe whom the gang nicknames Bromley (George MacKay); actor and reprobate Jonathan (Dominic West) and his boyfriend Gethin (Andrew Scott), the latter excommunicated from his mother’s home years ago; and lesbian Steph (Faye Marsay), as much an outsider among men as the gays are with the miners.
Despite the odds, they raise the money. A grateful union rep, Dai Donovan (Paddy Considine), wins the LG cohort over with sincerity. But they won’t go far in London. Jumping in the gayest, reddest van ever, they head to Onllwyn. At this point it’s obvious in which direction Pride‘s going: a fish out of water tale, with two gangs who regard each other with suspicion and contempt warming to each other. In a reminder that British actors also tend to work en masse, Warchus casts the Welsh side with a bounteous gaggle of familiar faces: Imelda Staunton as Hefina, the most enthusiastic and progressive of the bunch; Bill Nighy and his stone-etched face, concealing secrets of its own. After a few evenings of scowls over pints, the LGSM solidifies, but not without setbacks. When Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun publishes a scathing column with the headline “Pits and Perverts,” the union votes to disband the alliance…until LGSM produces £12,000 that the union would not have gotten their own. Unfazed, Mark proposes seizing the headline for themselves. Thus, in December 1984 the Pits and Perverts benefit concert, headlined by Bronski Beat, is born. The results: £6000 raised.
Like its protagonists, Pride is relentless in its devotion to keeping audience good will, for better or worse. Adorable old ladies hit leather bars asking patrons asking how they squeezed into their get-ups. West, known by Americans as Detective McNulty of HBO’s “The Wire,” channels Terence Stamp’s Priscilla for a dance routine set to “Shame, Shame, Shame” in an effort to get flouncing Welsh asses on the floor. On the night of the Pits and Perverts benefit Joe tastes his first gay kiss — and tastes the horror of his parents’ learning about his involvement in the morning (and the kiss itself takes place in shadows and profiles — some coming out!). The soundtrack is cluttered with enough inspirational strings and modern guitar chords to set any miners and gays’ teeth on edge.
But Jimmy Somerville’s radicalism belied rather banal ideas about desire and loss, steeped in Sondheim and Giorgio Moroder. And Pride‘s story is so too-good-to-be-true that of course it had to have really happened. At the point when the strike breaks and the miners are at their most despairing, they return the favor: they come out in busloads to London’s massive gay rights parade in summer ’85. Just as significant: at the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth the same year, a resolution committing the party to support LGBT equality rights gets approved, with the National Union of Miners voting unanimously. It would have, it’s safe to say, a seismic effect on the perception of British gays and lesbians in the coming decade. Mark Ashton lived to see this triumph long enough before dying of AIDS in 1987 (the Communards’ “For a Friend” is the elegy). Beresford and Warchus have the sense to keep Dai’s speech to the Pits and Pervert concert audience: “You have worn our badge, ‘Coal Not Dole,’ and you know what harassment means, as we do. Now we will pin your badge on us, we will support you. It won’t change overnight, but now 140,000 miners know that there are other causes and other problems. We know about blacks and gays and nuclear disarmament and we will never be the same.” Pride, the rare film that’s better history than drama, pins its badge in the right place.