Brassed Off


Of Brass Bands and Coal Miners

Main Cast: Ewan McGregor, Pete Postlethwaite, Tara Fitzgerald

Director: Mark Herman

I have a serious lack of knowledge of British internal politics. With this in mind, I’m sure I viewed Brassed Off with an entirely different perspective than either a British audience, or simply a more knowledgeable one. I do believe, however, that many viewers will find themselves in a similar position, and that the movie is enjoyable on more than this single level.

The central political issue in Brassed Off is the mid-90’s closing of coal mines in Britain during the Thatcher administration. The movie is set in the small town of Grimley, and provides the viewer with some relevant definitions at the outset (such as what a “colliery” is – a mine by the way). Grimley is a coal mining town of many generations, with sons following in their father’s footsteps, with no expectation of doing otherwise. The movie does not hesitate to portray mining as a dirty, unhealthy, low-paying job. It also manages to portray it as a way of life, rather than as just an occupation. Most of the characters are struggling to get by, and the government has plans to close the mine.

The central characters are Andy (Ewan McGregor), a young miner born and raised in Grimley; Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald), a hometown girl returned; and Danny (Pete Postlethwaite), the heart of the movie as a retired coal miner who now directs the miners tradition-rich brass band.

When young, pretty Gloria shows up asking to play in the band, she is welcomed warmly by Danny, who knew her grandfather, and the others, who are impressed with her other assets. Turns out she plays a mean flugel horn as well.  The town is on pins and needles as labor and management negotiate the future of the mine, and the men become more desolate and less interested in the band as their world begins to fall apart. Only Danny, their leader, pushes them to continue despite all that is going on around them, with a seemingly one track agenda and a theory that music does matter in the grand scheme of things.

So as not to spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it, I will only say that the second half reveals truths about Danny, his son Phil (Steven Tompkinson), and Gloria and Andy which complicate an already rather bleak scenario. Danny’s impassioned speech at the end of the movie is made all the more moving and ironic in light of his own fate.

Throughout all of this destitution and hardship is one shining reprieve, for both the viewers and the characters; the band. I was expecting some amateur horn honking, but this is a serious band. The music is very good throughout, working both on a surface level as part of the plot, and as an underlying level of texture. Their rendition of a Rodrigo Concerto interspersed with visual only montages of labor/management negotiations is tremendously effective, and the music is truly beautiful.

McGregor and Fitzgerald are fairly ordinary in both their romance and their place within the larger story. The real emotional heart of the movie comes out in myriad ways through Postlethwaite and a fine supporting cast. The character of Postlethwaite’s son is particularly effective, and as his plight deepens we feel genuine sadness and compassion for him. The entire town is filled with people just trying to get by, and doing it in the only way they’ve ever known. Their community is tight knit, with people helping each other when they can, and celebrating the bright spot which is the band.

Brassed Off shows a community struggling to survive; people who know no other way of life fighting to keep what they have, regardless of how unappealing it seems from the outside. We get a real sense of their devastation at the prospect of losing their town and traditions. Even without commenting on the politics, I can say they are addressed in a truly heartfelt way. Director Mark Herman does a good job keeping up the pace without rushing the movie, and sets an interesting tone somewhere between comedy and tragedy.

An interest in politics, or just a soft spot for against-the-odds type movies are reasons to see Brassed Off. Much lighter than most political drama, there is real entertainment here both within and outside the political arena.

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