Bedfellows don’t come much stranger than the group of hardscrabble Welsh coal miners and the motley gay and lesbian activists of London who teamed up in the mid-1980s to fight the union-busting scourge of Margaret Thatcher.
Theirs is an almost incredible story about lateral oppression that’s been buried under a thousand other controversies, obscured by the horror of the AIDS crisis and forgotten after years of disheartening losses sustained by the labor movement in Britain and far beyond.
But thankfully for anyone with an interest in human rights of any sort, it’s been revived with brilliant clarity in director Matthew Warchus’ searing and endearing film “Pride,” which dramatizes the brief moment in British history when the struggle for gay rights and workers’ rights converged.
It was by no means love at first sight. The film follows the unlikely efforts of a small group of gay London activists, led by Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer), to raise money for the national miners’ strike. The way Ashton saw it, there was no distinction between his cause and that of Britain’s beleaguered workers.
“What’s the point of supporting gay rights, but nobody else’s rights?” he asks matter-of-factly. And despite his measured success, the world comes back with some fairly violent answers, both from within the gay rights movement and outside of it. In the end, though, through sheer persistence, this group of rag-tag Londoners succeeds in endearing itself to a group a miners, thus beginning one of the more unlikely and promising examples of cross-movement solidarity – a word activists often say but too rarely practice – in recent memory.
In the hands of someone less gifted or more sentimental, this almost too-perfect tale of solidarity across a seemingly unbridgeable divide might have turned into the stuff of a Lifetime movie. But there are few long-lingering shots here, few overstretched emotional moments, few lines that creak with preachiness except to illustrate a character’s personal fault. Some overchoreographed moments pop up, such as when members of the union hall break into supposedly spontaneous song after a rousing speech by Ashton, but even these are moving despite the fact that the wires are showing.
There are just as many moments of subtle comic relief or chilling nods toward darker issues, like one gay character’s knee-jerk agreement with a passing woman who claims the gays and lesbians marching in front of them are sick or when Ashton encounters an old friend in the entryway of a dim gay bar only to learn that he is on his “farewell tour.” This scene is there to remind us that this is the gay community of London in the mid-1980s, and the specter of death is everywhere. Indeed, Ashton died from the disease in 1987, leaving behind a legacy and spirit that this film admirably reanimates for a new generation of workers and activists.
Where the injustices borne by the British working class are concerned, Warchus had plenty of material to study. He’s learned to manipulate the audience’s emotional strings with the same skill of Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot”) but with an even greater measure of subtlety that serves the story and each of its three-dimensional characters well.
Not a single person in this film is a caricature or a stereotype – neither the most conservative resident of the Welsh mining town nor the most flamboyant gay man. Just as it was, and just as it is, in real life.
Starring: Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West
Director: Matthew Warchus
Running time: 120 minutes
Rating: R for language and brief sexual content.
The Lowdown: A group of lesbian and gay activists in London forms an unlikely partnership with striking mine workers from Wales.