Brassed Off! (United Kingdom, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Unemployment is a bane almost everyone can appreciate -- a universal affliction that becomes a sobering reality for many people during even the best of economic times. And, while the loss of each individual job is traumatic, that's nothing compared to what happens when the livelihood and identity of an entire community are jeopardized by a round of mass layoffs. Brassed Off!, written and directed by Mark Herman, takes a look at the plight of the British coal miner -- a dying breed. Once, mining was a thriving industry in rural England, with whole towns built around each mine. But, during the early 1980s, the Tory government began converting the country to nuclear power. The resulting drop in demand devastated the coal industry, with hundreds of pits being closed and a quarter of a million miners made "redundant."

Grimley Colliery is a mine on the verge of shutting down. The pit, which employs more than 1000 miners, has been targeted for closure, but, to sweeten the bitter taste for the workers, a healthy severance package has been offered. Still, there are those who are willing to fight to the end, believing that no amount of money can make up for the damage that Grimley's closure will bring. Among the most vocal of the anti-closing brigade are Andy (Ewan McGregor), a brash, young miner whose lungs are still relatively clean, and Phil (Stephen Tompkinson), a family man who's deep in debt and needs his job to make ends meet. Meanwhile, Phil's father, Danny (Pete Postlethwaite), wants the mine to stay open for a different reason. He's the conductor of the Grimley Colliery Brass Band (in fact, it's his life), and, if the mine closes, the band will come to an end. In fact, several members are considering tendering their resignations to Danny when a pretty young trumpet player, Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald), arrives in town and asks to sit in on the practice sessions.

Brassed Off! is a traditional feel-good motion picture with an element of social commentary thrown in for good measure. The film might have been stronger had it displayed a little more anger throughout instead of opting for a big speech at the end to get the point across, but at least it imparts a measure of the pain that unemployment can cause. And Brassed Off! is less glib than Michael Moore's Roger and Me in pursuing a similar aim. While Moore's chief goal was a caustic attack against General Motors, Brassed Off! shows the human toll of mass layoffs.

Even though two of the most prominent names in the cast are rising stars Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting) and Tara Fitzgerald (The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill...), their performances are among the least noteworthy. The best acting turn belongs to Pete Postlethwaite (In the Name of the Father), whose Danny is poignant and proud, followed closely by such British stalwarts as Jim Carter, Philip Jackson, Peter Martin, and Stephen Tompkinson. If Danny represents Brassed Off!'s heart, then the miners represent its body and soul.

Actually, McGregor and Fitzgerald appear to be on hand largely to inject some youthful appeal into the film. Neither of their characters is particularly necessary or effective. However, without their rather unconvincing romantic subplot, the movie probably wouldn't reach as wide an audience. They may not do much, but they're there, and their characters fall in love. That will be enough for certain viewers who would otherwise ignore a dramatic comedy about a bunch of old geezers who play in a colliery brass band.

The plot itself is littered with familiar feel-good elements: the big competition, the critical illness of a key character (win one for the Gipper!), and the redemption of someone who's viewed as a betrayer. Despite this, or perhaps partially because of it, Brassed Off! successfully presents its theme without ever becoming overbearing. Certainly, this isn't a hard-hitting motion picture like Germinal, but its heart is in the right place, it has a great soundtrack, and it keeps the viewer entertained. Anyone seeing Brassed Off! for its lighter, less effective elements (the love story, the band competition) should at least understand the message that Mark Herman is conveying.

Brassed Off! (United Kingdom, 1996)

Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 1997-05-23
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1