"Brassed Off"

A review of the movie brassed off, directed by mark herman and starring ewan mcgregor, tara fitzgerald and peter postlethwaite, reviewed by stephanie zacharek.

Published June 30, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

the title of "Brassed Off," about a crew of British coal miners whose livelihood is doomed when the government moves to close their mine, is a pun. The miners play in a brass band in their off hours. "Brassed off" also means dejected, fed up, as we learn in the glossary of terms we're given at the opening of the movie. The problem is that "Brassed Off" continues to spell out its message -- "It's people who matter" -- in billboard proportions long after that glossary's gone, even as writer and director Mark Herman doodles precious little curlicues of humanity in the movie's corners. Herman isn't sure if he's doing a big-statement picture or a tiny treasure of a comedy, and his confusion throws "Brassed Off" off balance.

It's curious that Herman feels he has to work so hard to earn our sympathy for the people -- coal miners especially -- who've been crushed under Margaret Thatcher's bloody, sensible, Oxford heel and who continue to suffer thanks to its legacy. As far as U.S. audiences go, American liberals of a certain age already have a healthy sense of outrage and injustice over the way Thatcher conservatives have cared so little for the human beings outside their pea-sized vision; Elvis Costello songs like "Pills and Soap" or "Tramp the Dirt Down" hook right into that rage.

But "Brassed Off" is so dogged about capturing the heartbreak of that injustice that it only ends up sentimentalizing it. Pete Postlethwaite, an astonishing actor wedged into a painfully trite role, plays Danny, a retired (and, we find out, terminally ill) coal miner who now devotes his life to leading the Grimley Colliery (i.e., coal mine) Band, the over-100-year-old brass band that the town's miners play in after-hours. His hope is to lead them to victory in a national brass band competition, and he works them mercilessly, blind to the fact that they're preoccupied by the impending closure of their mine (a move they still hope to be able to vote down).

Danny's especially hard on his own son, Phil (Stephen Tompkinson) -- a buffoonish trombonist with a wife and large family who's fallen dangerously into debt -- needling him to replace his mangled and dented old instrument, even though he must know Phil can't afford it. The members of the band grumble at first when lovely young Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald), who grew up in the town and has now returned temporarily for a work assignment, tries to join; they relent when they discover she's an ace brass player, and the daughter of Danny's old friend -- a miner himself, of course -- to boot. It turns out she's also an old flame of trumpeter Andy (Ewan McGregor), who virtually beams when she enters the room. He's the one who's hurt the most when it turns out she's a government surveyor, assigned to do research on the Grimley Colliery that could make its closing definite.

When Herman shows us the miners, grimy and exhausted in their orange jumpsuits as they head home at the end of the day, he captures something of their grim valor. And there are times -- for example, as they kiss their wives good-bye and head out to band practice, many of them with their tarnished old instruments tucked under their arms instead of stowed in cases -- you feel you're getting a sense of the texture of their everyday lives. After the plant is closed, one of the miners' wives who's tried to fight the closing -- and who has repeatedly cut down her husband (Jim Carter, whose liquid brown eyes convey a winsome, moony despair) because she feels he hasn't fought hard enough -- turns to him and tenderly says, "See a bit more of each other now, eh?"

That's a lovely offhand line, but it's a rare understated moment in "Brassed Off." Herman is so busy shuttling back and forth between the characters' stories that he doesn't do justice to any one of them. There's an easy kind of sweetness between McGregor and Fitzgerald, but their story is a sliver of a subplot: Maybe we're supposed to be less interested in them since they don't have families to feed, they're not dying and they show no evidence of cracking under hardship. (Why didn't it occur to Herman that maybe we'd want to see more of them because of that?) Instead, we're constantly invited to smile through our tears, just as the miners and their families do. When Phil's wife doesn't have enough money to pay her grocery order, her embarrassment is written out in tense, repeated close-ups lest we miss it. The sympathetic cashier slips her some money folded up in the receipt, and we're treated to another close-up of the women's hands clutched in shining solidarity.

It's not giving anything away to say that the Colliery Brass Band wins the championship. In fact, the music, played by the real-life Grimethorpe Colliery Band, really does sound redemptive, and makes up for at least some of the film's strained earnestness. And the movie does contain one stunning visual: When the band members assemble after dark outside Danny's hospital room, where he's close to dying of black lung, they're wearing their miners' hats so they can see. They're like a brigade of hopeful fireflies who just happen to know how to play "Danny Boy" on brass.

But by the time we've heard Danny give his rousing Why People Matter speech to a large, hushed audience -- he's hauled himself from his hospital bed to do this -- we feel bludgeoned. Herman provides so many big moments that the characters end up being dwarfed: They seem to matter much less than the miniaturized epic poems he's written around them. It's too bad, because, of course, Herman's right -- it is the little people who matter. That's why you owe it to them to portray them at their actual size.


By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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