Friday, February 10, 2017

Brass Canary in the Coal Mine

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 17
Mark Herman (Writer/Director), Brassed Off

Aging Danny Ormondroyd (Pete Postlethwaite) works digging coal in a distant Yorkshire village, but considers his real career directing the local brass band. When pretty, young, posh-talking Gloria Mullins asks to sit in with Danny’s previously all-male band, noting she was born local—and switching her accent quickly—Danny swallows his objections because she can play. But then his boys, who also dig coal, realize Gloria’s dark secret: she’s management.

Yankee Doodle film distributors pitched this movie as a romantic comedy between Fitzgerald’s character and angry, disillusioned trumpeter Andy Barrow (Ewan McGregor, back when he still did mainly indie films). In fairness, that’s a prominent subplot. But in reality, this movie centers on the three-way struggle between Yorkshire coal miners, the state-owned National Coal Board monopoly, and the labor union workers no longer trust. It’s like The Full Monty, with horns.

Danny directs his band with quiet restraint, standing at his podium with a dignified bearing beyond his working-class roots. But his energy has been depleted recently, which he attributes to age. Danny’s son Phil, shackled by massive debt, has just watched helplessly as his wife and children left. Phil takes a second job, performing as a clown at children’s parties. Danny considers this beneath his talented son, but Phil lacks his father’s ideals. You can’t eat music.

Andy Barrow greets Gloria’s arrival with cold disdain. She wonders why, until he reminds her: they had their first fumbling attempts at teenage romance together fifteen years earlier. She left Grimley, adopted a London accent, and became a public servant; he stayed and dug coal. Now she’s back, and he can’t help wondering why. Still, old feelings die hard, and before long, they fall into rapid love. Until he learns she’s there to evaluate whether the local mines have any economic future.

These two narratives, and a few others besides, drive the story. And the symbolism isn’t subtle. Danny’s inability to communicate with his struggling son represents the relationship between the nationwide union and the hurting workers, a representation made more poignant when Danny is diagnosed with black lung disease and given months to live. Andy and Gloria, meanwhile, represent the relationship between management and labor: they need, but cannot trust, one another.

Ewan McGregor, Tara Fitzgerald, and Pete Postlethwaite (front row L-R) in Brassed Off

Members of the Grimley Colliery Band, based on the band, village, and mine in Grimthorpe, Yorkshire, are the epitome of British working poor. Still suffering with debt a decade after the anti-Thatcher miners’ strike of 1984, which lasted a full year, the miners consider their union as bad as management. They don’t realize the National Coal Board is in the process of privatizing, and any ethical underpinnings or public good will soon no longer matter in business decisions.

Workplace bands matter in British tradition, a way of banding together and enforcing shared identities that aren’t circumscribed by work. Americans do something similar with softball teams. Mines, factories, retailers, government agencies: many organize marching bands in their off hours, to entertain the community and compete regionally. Following Britain’s massive economic contraction of the 1980s, the bands often outlived the workplaces they represented.

This movie continues a respected British cinematic tradition, of losers fighting a losing battle simply because it’s right. From David Lean’s war movies to the classic Ealing Studios comedies, British filmmakers have long celebrated glorious losers. They can’t fight the tide, these movies imply, but simply refusing to concede makes them noble. But as Danny’s hacking cough starts bleeding, this movie also asks whether being noble matters enough.

The Thatcherite government shuttered Grimthorpe’s mines in 1993, forcing nearly half the village into unemployment lines. By 1994, the EU declared Grimthorpe Britain’s poorest community, and entire neighborhoods were demolished because nobody can afford the taxes and maintenance. Though the community saw some revival in recent years, Grimthorpe remains a byword for economic stagnation. And the band remains synonymous with stiff-upper-lip perseverance.

In some ways, this movie eulogizes a way of blue-collar life already dying in Britain. In 1983, Britain had 176 active coal pits; by 2009, it had six. And the movie isn’t shy about its political motivations; for the American release, distributors bookended the film with title cards about Britain’s working class decline so less familiar audiences could understand. But this movie isn’t na├»ve. The Thatcherites sealed miners’ coffins, but economically, they were already dead.

These miners were, potentially, rife for militant nationalism and economic protectionism. But the final scenes imply they refuse to let fear dominate them, because they have each other. As the band circles Westminster, loudly playing “Land of Hope and Glory” from the top of the double-decker bus, the camera dollies in on Danny, who knows he’s walking dead. He watches his band, beaten but not broken. Tears fill his eyes. And, if we’re honest, ours too.

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