Pride is an act of reverse alchemy, turning something beautiful and rare into depressingly ordinary dreck. In 1984, a handful of gay people in London formed a group, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), to raise money for striking miners in the Welsh town of Dulais during Margaret Thatcher’s icily anti-labor reign. It was a visionary response to a grave threat, both to the miners and, as an LGSM member noted in a documentary made at the time, all the other unions that the Thatcher regime would surely go after if they beat this one. Yet the film spawned by this flashpoint in British history is as formulaically cheery, didactically “uplifting,” and fundamentally false as a Disney sports movie, bloated with swelling music, healing hugs and hearty handshakes, suspiciously eloquent impromptu speeches, and tight-lipped expressions of bigotry smacked down by smugly delivered liberal pieties.
Perhaps because LGSM’s effort to help win the strike actually failed (the miners conceded after about a year), the film provides very few details about the strike’s goals, strategies, or progress. Instead, we get made-for-Hollywood interactions between salt-of-the-earth townspeople and gay city slickers, like a scene in the union hall where a woman starts singing a beautiful rendition of “Bread and Roses” and all the other women slowly join in as the onlookers get teary-eyed. Or the one where LGSM, about to be relegated to the rear of London’s gay pride parade, is put in the lead instead when scores of miners and their wives show up, just in the nick of time, to join them.
The rest of the action consists mostly of attenuated mini-dramas about individual characters, most of whom have the feel of composites, like LGSM members Steph (Faye Marsay), a tart-tongued but soft-hearted lesbian who can’t get a date, and Joe (George MacKay), a naïve young beauty who still lives at home and in the closet. Mark Ashton, the activist who came up with the idea for the group, is sanded down to a sweet young man with a good heart who starts LGSM on a whim, when in fact he was a politically savvy communist whose determination to link arms with workers was part of a larger plan to “align himself with the labour movement in order to get gay politics, sexual liberation, HIV and AIDS treatment on to the political agenda,” as a former LGSM member told The Guardian. Meanwhile, the AIDS epidemic, which helped spur Ashton to action and was inspiring widespread grief and panic by the time this story takes place, is relegated to the background.
It’s all so numbingly generic and hackneyed that it comes as a shock when a moment rings true. The great Imelda Staunton, who plays the head of the committee that supports the town’s miners, scores a hit when her character calls Jonathan (Dominic West) to wish him a happy holiday, gets his partner, Gethin (Andrew Scott), instead, and upon detecting his accent, gently wishes him a merry Christmas in Welsh. Gethin, a melancholy fellow who left Wales 15 years earlier to escape the homophobia and hasn’t been home since, is moved to tears by the matter-of-fact maternal warmth Staunton gracefully summons. But the strongest moment in the film comes at the end, when—spoiler alert!—a crawl informs us that Ashton died of AIDS just a couple years after the story ends, at the age of 26. In that moment, the weight of that terrible plague rips through the fragile fabric of this bogus construction, leaving us face to face with the tragedy of all those prematurely lost lives.