Skip to main content
film review

Bill Nighy plays a retired Welsh coal miner pondering a strike with unlikely partners in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.Nicola Dove

For anyone seasoned enough to remember the reign of Margaret Thatcher in real time, the most piercing moment in Matthew Warchus's Pride will probably come when Bill Nighy, playing a retired Welsh coal miner pondering a strike that has struck an unlikely alliance between his old union and a group of gay activists from London, utters the Prime Minister's name with an inserted expletive that sounds like venom itself uncorked.

It's just a moment, but it reminds you not only of just how much loathing the Iron Lady inspired – she was Ronald Reagan without the people-pleasing charm – but of the scale of the backlash Thatcher's hardline conservatism generated. For one thing, it not only brought a group of gay activists to a tiny Welsh town in the inspirational display of solidarity Warchus's movie takes as its fist-in-the-air dramatic springboard, it launched a thousand angry songs, bands and filmmakers: Stephen Frears, Derek Jarman, Mike Leigh, Alan Clarke and Dennis Potter all came to artistic boil on Thatcher's stove, and if there's one thing Pride is lacking, it's more of the heat Nighy spits out in that lone mumble.

But times have changed, haven't they? Thatcher is not only gone but under heavy historical reconsideration, unions are faring considerably less well in the cultural conversations than gays are, and Britain doesn't make movies like it used to: The old anger has given way to gangster slapstick, high-stepping musicals and feel-good working-class comedies, the latter of which Pride is a fitfully effective but finally pro forma example. This is history retrofitted to flatter the presumed progressiveness of the present, a movie in which the galvanizing moment bringing stoic Welsh miners and flash gay activists together comes when Dominic West, playing an actor hitherto soured on political activism, jumps on a union-hall table and lets his freak flag fly to Shirley & Company's disco anthem Shame, Shame, Shame. All resistance melts.

The operative emotional stimulus at work in Pride, which is inspired by the real 1984-85 alliance of London's Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners movement and the Welsh coal-miners' union that Thatcher eventually defeated, is stirring inspiration, and if the movie manages to cough it up it does so at the expense of most other dramatic states, especially those that might compromise the project's overall atmosphere of pint-sharing, all-for-one good cheer. Which means most of the uglier byproducts of the gays-for-miners movement are either played down, left offscreen or played for laughs. Even the worst homophobes are viewed as simply potholes on the highway to enlightenment, and Maggie herself appears on TV only long enough to get the channel changed.

What's missing here is what once animated so much of British popular culture in the late seventies and eighties, and which also inspired such fervent cultural upheaval Stateside in Reagan's similarly supply-sided U.S.: the politics of rage. But the consolation is that it's a movie you can laugh along and dance to, and may well become the very first musical in London's West End to bring disco to the grim Welsh coal mines. Under the circumstances, that passes for progress.