Although it plays it a bit too safe at times, Pride really is a feel-good triumph.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Trailers are funny beasts. Their stated goal is to sell you a movie by showing you enough to get you interested whilst accurately representing the film that you’ll be plonking down hard earned cash to watch. Most of the time, though, they go a bit too far. They spoil most setpieces or plot points in search of the all-important money shot and to find that unique hook to draw you in (I’m pretty sure that the only thing that the trailer for next week’s A Walk Among The Tombstones didn’t spoil is the identity of the villains), and sometimes they just straight up lie about the kind of film you might be sitting down to watch (Lucy may have been utterly insane, as the trailer indicated it would be, but it was hardly a movie bursting at the seams with action, not that I’m complaining). Pride was one of those cases where the trailer misrepresented the film into looking like it was going to be something that it wasn’t. A comedy-drama in which a group of “not-normals” come into an ignorant village and their mere presence causes everyone to learn to be more tolerant, whilst some famous faces act innocently insensitive at points for comedic effect? I literally just ripped Million Dollar Arm to shreds for not bothering to characterise its “not-normals” and being only focussing on the innocently insensitive normals two weeks back! Why should I give this one the benefit of any doubt?
So I entered Pride with my skepticals firmly attached. I was all set to find this one yet another example of a “nice” film that got ideas above its station and failed miserably at being an awards-bait film that wanted to say something. So, imagine my surprise when, at around about the 30 minute mark, I found myself really invested in Pride. See, Pride is much lower-key than its early-Autumn awards season release date and “two groups of differing ends of whatever scale learn to get along” premise and marketing suggest. Pride is not trying to say much beyond the obvious “for the love of the Maker, people, we are all humans, just get along already!” It has pretty much no pretentious towards earning as many awards as the producers can fit into their cabinets. No, Pride just wants to tell a story. Pride wants to tell a story about characters, about people.
And that’s really where the film’s secret to its success comes from. This is a story about people and how a shared crisis causes them to come together in solidarity. Yes, the message is still of tolerance, but it comes naturally from the story, the result of fire-forged friends building mutual respect with one another that creates bonds for life. Pride’s masterstroke, and this really should be the norm instead of the exception so I’m a bit peeved that I have to point this out, is that it humanizes the gays and lesbians. Whereas a lesser film would have made them interchangeable or simply made them blank slates that we’re only supposed to care about because the “normal” protagonists have everything riding on them, Pride makes them human, gives them agency, gives them their own characteristics and individual personalities and arcs. They aren’t just some nebulous force that further the “normal” protagonists arcs, nor are they something to force a whole bunch of jokes off of. They’re people. Individual people!
The events of the film are predominately seen through their eyes, with only occasional scenes that come solely from the viewpoint of the mining community, and it works gangbusters. We see how they convinced a town to warm up to them through their charming personalities and the genuine good that they do, rather than just their mere presence warming the hearts of the grinches. We see how they’re not some unified force of good that’s completely free of human foibles; there are frequent rumblings from the few lesbians that are part of the group of creating a splinter-group solely dedicated to lesbians, they get into arguments with one another, they make mistakes, they can be just as prejudiced as the people who hate them. They feel human, like real people, not a walking embodiment of tolerance messages.
For example, there’s a relationship between the elder gay men of the group, Gethin (Andrew Scott) and Jonathan (Dominic West), and the film treats it as no big deal. There is no giant meet-cute, there’s no big second act break-up and their relationship is not a big plot point. They are a couple, they bicker and fight occasionally, and they love each other; Pride expects the audience to accept that as a thing that would happen and move on. Joe (George McKay) is a shy gay man who learns to embrace his sexuality thanks to the events of the story, an arc that admittedly doesn’t hit as hard as it should because he gets lost in the ensemble shuffle but is still nice to see because, again, it humanizes him and makes him a well-defined character. Mark (rising star Ben Schnetzer who is phenomenal in this) comes into his own as a leader thanks to the support he receives from the mining community and the success the campaign gets, until tragedy throws him into self-doubt. They all tease each other, share little in-jokes and nicknames and give off the spirit of being true companions. That’s how the film works! These are people, and that’s what makes the film engaging and investing even when it hits the obvious beats (you get one guess as to why the film makes a point to mention that gays don’t go out collecting alone), writer Stephen Beresford being that good at crafting these characters.
The same is true of the citizens of the Welsh mining village (which, unless I’m mistaken, is never actually given a name). The bigotry is clearly fuelled by ignorance and improper knowledge and, though the moment where they come around to the gays and lesbians is mostly encapsulated in one scene, the change is one that comes on naturally as a result of actions that occur by the characters rather than a magic switch flipping from “Irrational Bigotry” to “Total Slavish Devotion”. It feels more natural instead of obviously constructed, even if it still really is very constructed. The one misstep that the film makes with them is to personify the attitudes and bigotry into one person, specifically one family, that of the head of the mining council. It feels like taking the easy way out, crafting an obvious easily hateable and personable villain, designed to quickly and easily remind viewers that not everybody supports the gays and lesbians siding with the miners rather than trusting that the viewers can just figure that out for themselves or leaving the villainy as an over-arching concept.
In fact, that’s representative of the only real fault that Pride has: a little too often does the film take the easy way out. It softens edges, follows formula, plays it safe. This isn’t really a comedy (despite what the prior mentioned trailer sold it as) but the times when the film awkwardly stretches for laughs in order to keep the film from getting too dramatic, which are infrequent but do happen, are the weakest, like it doesn’t have enough faith in the material for the audience to hang on for the feel-good ending to this “feel-good” story. When the inevitable outcome of why gays don’t go out collecting alone comes about, the film just cuts to the awhile after the aftermath, robbing the scene of all but the tiniest part of its impact (for contrast, look at the scene in Brokeback Mountain when the inevitable possibly happened and the film forced you to watch the majority of it). The score is exactly as generic and manipulative as you’re expecting, never getting off-beat enough to reflect the subject matter and the best instances of the film’s tone, and unnecessarily intruding on scenes that were already getting their point across before you laboured it, thank you kindly. When the obvious constructed nature of this “feel-good-based-on-a-true” story pokes through the otherwise natural pacing and character-work, which isn’t too often but is often enough for me to mark it down, the magic takes a hit and a great drama is brought down to the level of a very good biopic.
But I’m not prepared to knock the film too much for all of that, as the fact of the matter is that I was engaged and invested in Pride for the majority of the two hours that it ran for. I was entertained by the less-forced humour, completely behind the campaign and caring for the characters that were involved in it, and was filled with little swells in my heart when acceptance started winning out. It’s got some great performances by both the more established actors (Bill Nighy, in particular, scores major points for a pair of late-film scenes that re-contextualise his deliberate underplaying of his role perfectly), although that’s expected to be the case when you sign people like Dominic West and Imelda Staunton and Andrew Scott up for anything, and the newer-kids-on-the-block (the aforementioned Ben Schnetzer, but there’s also George MacKay’s very well-delivered youthful uncertainty and This Is England’s Joe Gilgun doing a great job as the anchor to the group). I’ve already mentioned the character work… See, there’s not a lot to Pride and even less as to why it works, but that’s kind of its charm. It doesn’t get ideas above its station, it isn’t openly trying to be a “message movie,” it instead puts its eggs into the character basket and expects that the rest will slot into place. And it all does; very much so.
To put it another way, Pride is the kind of film that, even though history deems this to be all-set for a downer ending, manages to manufacture an uplifting climax anyway, complete with “Where Are They Now?” text descriptors, and my criticism of said thing only amounted to “the text descriptors are a little unnecessary.” I was really pleasantly surprised by this one, folks, and I have the feeling that other people like me may be too. And for those who took one look at the trailer and thought this would be the film for them? They’re more than likely going to love it.