WFTB Score: 18/20
The plot: Faced with a redundancy offer too good to refuse, the end of Grimley Colliery also looks like the end of the brass band that has been in existence for over a hundred years. The arrival of a female horn player, however, stirs up interest in more than one of the band members as they plot a way to the National Finals.
The posters would have you believe that Brassed Off is a romantic comedy with jolly brass band music, but viewers expecting a Hugh Grant-style romp are likely to be quickly disabused. With any luck, though, they will stick with the film and enjoy one of the best and most incisive British films of the last thirty years.
Beginning with the accompaniment of brass band music to the end of the miners’ shift in the fictional Grimley Colliery, the film swiftly introduces us to the miners who form the Grimley Colliery Band. As the pit is earmarked for closure – the owners are offering a generous redundancy offer if the miner’s accept it, much less if they opt for the pit to go to ‘review’ – old codgers Jim and Ernie (Philip Jackson and Peter Martin) declare their intention not to pay subs, effectively spelling the end of the band. When glamorous young Gloria Mullins (Tara Fitzgerald) turns up, however, they change their minds, though her position as a surveyor for the mining company makes her a figure of some suspicion. Gloria is also interesting to young trumpeter Andy (Ewan McGregor); though she appears not to remember him, Gloria was Andy’s first adolescent love.
Band Leader Danny Ormondroyd (Pete Postlethwaite) is adamant that the band should compete for the Brass Band Finals to be held at the Albert Hall, but whether the band or Danny, decades of mining filling his lungs with coal dust, will last that long, is doubtful. Danny’s son Phil, a simple-minded trombonist (Stephen Tompkinson) who served time during the miner’s strike, is already struggling with his desperate wife Sandra (Melanie Hill), their four children, and a mountain of debt; his father’s instruction to get some new brass is not exactly well-timed.
Andy and Gloria get reacquainted with each other, but given the seriousness of their troubles it’s unsurprising that Brassed Off organically migrates from them towards the more bitter struggles faced by Phil and his father. Their battles – Phil to keep his family together, Danny to stay alive – are not always easy to watch, but it’s compelling stuff, beautifully played by both Tompkinson and Postlethwaite. What happens to the family (I won’t spoil it here), let alone the community, is an emotional punch to the stomach, and at the same time asks uncomfortable questions about the merit and purpose of art. That said, the band’s poignant performance of Danny Boy outside Danny’s hospital bed, and the conductor’s reaction to it, provide all the answers you need.
You might expect the music to lighten the mood of the film, and the Saddleworth tour that descends into drunken chaos is indeed very funny; but elsewhere, the brass in Brassed Off is dark and brooding even while it’s stirring, montages moving the story on as the music plays – shown to best effect in Gloria’s first performance of the Concierto di “Orange juice”. The sequence that sees the band winning the semi-finals whilst the decision to close the pit is made is also very effective, and the Albert Hall climax is incredibly uplifting and sad at the same time: it may be a last hurrah for the band, but it’s a hurrah all the same. It should also be said that amongst the difficulties of these families’ lives, there is some very funny and very gritty Northern humour, effectively portrayed by skilled actors such as Sue Johnston, playing Jim’s wife.
Mark Herman, directing from his own screenplay, elicits strong performances from the cast and weaves in music from the Grimethorpe Colliery Band (who also fill out the cast of the fictional ensemble) with great skill. Herman invests his film with enormous, if partisan, passion for the miners, making it perfectly clear (throughout the film, but most obviously in Danny’s bold speech at the Albert Hall) that the blame for the personal, family, community and national tragedy lies with the government of the day, which treated the coal industry as an ancient relic (voiced in Stephen Moore’s manager: “Coal is history.”) For some, this blatantly political aspect to the film will be a turn-off, finding it Lefty Propaganda; and whilst many will be intrigued by the story, others outside Britain or too young in 1992 may find it parochial and/or confusing.
Personally, I think Brassed Off is a work of honest, determined genius. It may have a slightly undercooked love story, and it may wave its politics around a bit too obviously, and it may rely on the viewer being there or thereabouts when the real stories happened; but if you have any sympathy for the characters or appreciation of the music – how could you not and still say you’re a feeling human being? – Brassed Off is a profoundly moving experience. In comparison, The Full Monty is merely a song and dance act.
NOTES: This review was written a long time before Pride was released. I’m sure I’ll get round to writing a review for that film eventually, and it’s obvious that Pride owes much to Brassed Off in terms of both content and tone. As a snap judgement, I think Herman’s film is the better work, based on its bleak humour and stark drama.