I’m not sure if I can think of a more inappropriate film poster than the one I have above. If you look at that picture, you might think that 1996 British indie dramedy Brassed Off was a light-hearted romantic comedy that peripherally featured music. In fact, the film is a fairly serious and tragic political drama with a peripheral romance, occasional pitch-black comedy, and a harsh subversion of your typical underdog story. It’s been a while since there’s been a movie I wanted to watch so little based on its plot description on Netlflix that I ultimately ended up enjoying so much. As a scathing indictment of the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher and her Tory Parliament in the 1980s (along with John Major in the 90s before Blair and Labour regained control), Brassed Off is one of the most heart-breaking examinations of the destruction of the working class this side of Season 2 of The Wire.
Loosely based on a true story, Brassed Off takes place in the small, fictional mining community of Grimley in South Yorkshire. The local coal mine (or colliery as it’s referred to in England) is under immense pressure from the Tory (or Conservative) government to accept a redudancy offer which is a one time payment in exchange for shutting the mine down. With the threat of immediate unemployment hanging over the town’s head, the town’s only source of pleasure and pride is the Grimley Colliery Brass Band led by by the passionate and demanding Danny (The Usual Suspect‘s Pete Postlethwaite). Along with Danny’s son Phil (Stephen Tompkinson) and his star player Andy (Ewan McGregor), the Brass Band tries to win a national championship and their chances go up with the arrival of the beautiful and talented Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald) but her association with management in British Coal threatens to tear the group apart.
It’s really hard to undersell just how dark this film can be. Yes, the core of the plot is a story of a scrappy brass band trying to win a national championship while two members form a burgeoning (and taboo) romance, but at the end of the day, Brassed Off is about the systematic destruction of the working class that’s been seen all over the industrialized world these last twenty years. This is a film about the consequences of ravaging workers’ rights to collectively bargain (as seen by the complete lack of efficiency the labour union has in defending its workers). It’s about how not being able to provide for your family even when you work yourself to the bones destroys a man’s soul. It’s about how steady jobs are a source of communal identity and by taking those things away, you kill what makes communities great. No wonder the film was marketed differently in the states.
It is a heart-breaking film to the point that I cried on multiple occasions. Families dissolve because they don’t have enough money to stay together and loan sharks repossess their already meager belongings. Wives don’t speak to their husbands because the husband has lost the same sense of fight and resolve that made her fall in love with him in the first place. A man has a heart attack when he realizes (spoiler alert) that the mine is ultimately going to be shut down. Another man tries to kill himself when all of his efforts to stay above water fail. A couple breaks up when the lines of class and labor tear them apart. Even what should be the film’s happiest final moment is used to remind audiences that the whole film is bullshit if the British people don’t protect those who need it the most. This quote (from the film, not Chumbawumba) sums the film up perfectly.
“I thought it mattered. I thought that music mattered. But does it bollocks. Not compared to our people matter.”
Unfortunately, the periphery aspects of the film don’t seem to add much to the overall equation especially the romance between Andy and Gloria which contributes nothing to the film besides exploring the class tensions that are hit on in other, more effective ways. The characterizations aren’t always as rich as they should be. Phil and Danny are among the most compelling characters of the film because of both their father/son dynamic as well as how their lives outside the band are fleshed out (or not considering Danny’s obsession). However, leads like Gloria and Andy, which the film’s marketing would paint as being the central part of the film, are unfortunately thin. You have no reason to care about their romance other than some delightfully electric flirtation before their first real romantic encounter.
Ewan McGregor is one of the great talents from across the pond but both the character and his performance leave quite a bit to be desired as does Tara Fitzgerald. However, Pete Postlethwaite and Stephen Tompkinson steal the show as Danny and Phil. Tompkinson especially lends the film its necessary gravitas. He starts the film, and you think he’s going to be a joke character, but as he grows, he becomes the film’s tragic figurehead and Tompkinson is more than up to the task of representing the wrenching consequences of Tory politics. I don’t know enough about smaller British character actors to speak authoritatively (or specifically) on the matter, but the film shored up the weakness of two of its leads with some wonderfully humorous bit parts that lightened the film’s mood when the tragedy became too much to face.
Perhaps I really enjoyed this movie because I whole-heartedly agree with its leftist politics. But what’s not to love about insightful social commentary that shows the truth of the ills plaguing our nation (or in this case, England)? It has problems, but with great music, occasionally great performances, and an emotional resonance that impossible to deny, Brassed Off is a hidden gem from across the pond that didn’t get the attention it deserved in America perhaps because many American films are afraid to tackle substantive political issues. With an ability to humanize a tragedy that continues to sweep the world, Brassed Off gets my full recommendation.
Final Score: B+