The fictional Yorkshire coal-mining town where English director Mark Herman's Brassed Off! takes place is called, aptly enough, Grimley. You can feel the layer of soot that has settled into the lives of the beleaguered citizens, and you can sympathize with their struggle to remain human in the face of indignity and economic ruin.
The actual Yorkshire coal-mining town where this plucky, old-fashioned movie was shot is called Grimethorpe--a name even more suggestive of black lung, hard drinking and despair. So much for the distinction between life and art. But before we fall too deep into that old Look Back in Anger, bugger-the-Tories bag, you should probably know that Brassed Off! is a cry of rage slipped inside a fable--a wry, sometimes comic bow to perseverance rather than an outright rant.
The term "brassed off" is the British equivalent of our "teed off," which is precisely how Grimley's hardworking colliers (coal miners) feel when stone-hearted Margaret Thatcher plans to shut down the pit, take their jobs and offer them "redundancy" payoffs. Poverty is just around the corner, and so is oblivion. Britain's scores of mine closures in the early 1990s, it says here, not only destroyed an industry but ravaged whole communities.
In Grimley, though, the band plays on.
The notion that the coal miners' brass band, blaring away since 1881, is the last vestige of civic and personal pride in a town facing the abyss is fairly drenched in sentiment. Moviegoers of the Thatcherite persuasion won't likely be much moved by it. But listen. When the strains of the "Florentiner March" or "Pomp and Circumstance" rise on the soundtrack, performed by trumpeters, trombonists and tuba players risen from underground and spiffed up in sharp gold-and-purple uniforms, we hear not just music but the very song of their souls. Like 1991's hit tribute to old love and Irish tenors, Hear My Song, Herman's film never hesitates to strum away on our heartstrings.
Does that reduce it to a bowl of mush or unfairly stack the deck? I don't think so. The big set piece in which the bandmembers, all wearing miner's helmets with headlamps ablaze, gather under a hospital window to serenade their fallen leader with--can you top it?--"O Danny Boy" may outgush anything the great populist Frank Capra dreamed up to exalt Mr. Deeds or Mr. Smith. But there's a tough, flinty center to Brassed Off! that won't go away. The colliers of Grimley have broken their backs down in the hole, and after the shift, they scrub each other's backs to get all the grime off. So these are blokes you don't really want to mess with--no matter how pretty they play when they're cleaned up.
Craggy Pete Postlethwaite, the imprisoned Da of In the Name of the Father, gets star billing here as Danny Ormondroyd, a veteran of the pits and the devoted conductor of the Grimley Col-liery Band. Danny understands better than anyone what the band means to the town, and as the mine-closure vote draws closer, he struggles even harder to preserve the tradition than he does his own health. He gets a little help from a pretty flugelhornist, Gloria Mullins (Tara Fitzgerald), the newly returned daughter of a famous miner and brass man. She's the "new lass on board," the first woman ever allowed in the band, and she turns all heads. She also carries a pivotal secret.
The vigorous cast of characters also includes Andy, a staunch young union man who's weak for Gloria. He's played by Scotland's Ewan McGregor (last seen shooting heroin in Trainspotting). There's Danny's big, hapless son, Phil (Stephen Tompkinson), whose life and family start unraveling so fast that he considers killing himself. Along with everything else, his trombone is broken, and unpaid bills have reduced him to putting on floppy red shoes and playing Chuckles the Clown at kids' birthday parties. The movie's second- and third-chair players are almost as vivid, as are the wives and mothers (a couple with purple-dyed hair) who follow the brass band to its competitions in other towns.
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The band's future is in grave doubt, of course, but this is the kind of movie that calls for a big finish. To wit, a skin-of-the-teeth trip to London's Albert Hall for the national finals, a performance of the stirring "William Tell Overture," and one last statement against the heartlessness of the state. This is not exactly the kind of harsh standoff between union men and bosses we saw in Matewan, or even the power-to-the-workers plea of Norma Rae. It is akin to John Ford's classic bow to Welsh coal miners, How Green Was My Valley. Like a latter-day fusion of Capra and Ford, Herman makes his point about the dignity of labor through emotion, deflection and, whenever necessary, an uplifting blast of the "Colonel Bogey March."
"Coal is history!" one government coal-board man declares in a meeting where the powers that be are plotting the demise of the Grimley mine. He's right, of course, in one more sense than he grasps. To be sure, the Industrial Revolution, dutifully fueled by coal and coal miners, has given way to the soulless demands of the Information Age. But coal is also the heart of history in coalfield towns like Grimley/Grimethorpe. To unceremoniously stop that heart from beating is the kind of tragedy few notice, but it's a tragedy nonetheless.
Director Herman (Blame It on the Bellboy) uses equal shares of hard-nosed, working-class indignation, quirky humor and manipulative emotion to shed light on the problems of one sooty, red-brick town in social crisis. And he turns up the music (actually performed by the Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band) whenever his movie needs a lift. More power to him, I say. This kind of moviemaking is history--like coal. It cannot hurt, every now and then, to be reminded of its glories, as well as of the dirt under the fingernails of the people who make the world go round.
Written and directed by Mark Herman. With Pete Postlethwaite, Tara Fitzgerald, Stephen Tompkinson and Ewan McGregor.