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'Brassed Off:' sloppy British fun

Scenes from May 30, 1997
Web posted at: 6:16 p.m. EDT (2216 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- It seems that you're far more likely to find sloppy sentimentalism in everyday British films than you are in their U.S. counterparts, but considering the American alternative (runaway airliners crashing through corporate logo-embossed buildings), I'll take the violins any day of the week. "Brassed Off" is about as sloppy as it gets, but for nearly two-thirds of the movie the gushiness is pretty much kept in check. And those two thirds are quite a treat.

This is the story of a group of Yorkshire coal miners who (like their fathers and grandfathers before them) perform in brass band competitions as a pride-building hobby. Modern times have changed things, though, and they eventually must start leaning on each other to stave off the awful knowledge that their beloved Grimley Colliery is about to be shut down by Margaret Thatcher's dreaded Tory government.

Writer/director Mark Herman makes no secret of his distaste for the Tories. The situation is quite literally spelled out at the beginning of the film with rather acidic printed definitions of what a Tory is and does. Herman basically feels that they're a bunch of greedy bastards who gleefully crush the little man. The film would have more impact if it had been made while Thatcher was still in office, but this kind of anger burns on. For the American equivalent, picture the masses who were never privy to the dazzle in Reagan's "trickle down" economics.

The ensemble cast is excellent, from top to bottom. Ewan McGregor is Andy, the youngest and easily the most charismatic of the miners. McGregor's genial, good-hearted performance nicely camouflages the fact that this handsome young bloke (that's what they call them in this kind of movie) probably wouldn't be caught dead wearing a garish purple uniform and marching around in a brass band with a bunch of potbellied old geezers (also what they call them.)

As the film opens, several of the band members are considering hanging up their instruments for good. With the exception of their fanatical conductor, Danny Boy ("The Lost World's" Pete Postlethwaite), most of the men are more concerned with the fact they're quickly approaching unemployment. Several mines in the area have already been shut down, and it's just a matter of time before the ax hits them.

A much-needed second wind soon arrives in the guise of Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald), a flugelhorn whiz with an alluring smile and even more alluring everything else. Talk of disbanding is put on hold so long as these weary pub mates are allowed to carouse with this angelic virtuoso. As might be imagined (and most of what happens in the film can easily be imagined before it actually takes place), Gloria will turn out to be as much of a curse as she is a blessing.

Both McGregor and Fitzgerald are wildly appealing actors, attractive while remaining actual human beings, light-hearted while fully registering the plight of these working stiffs. When "Trainspotting" suddenly became a huge sensation in Europe, most critics pinned down McGregor as a young Malcolm McDowell. He does have quite a bit of McDowell's "Clockwork Orange"-period mischievous gleam in his eyes, but if you ask me, I think the guy is best described as a younger, less self-satisfied Kenneth Branagh. The nice thing about his performance in "Brassed Off" is that he looks tailor-made to be yet another British "angry young man," but his good spirits never let him fall into something so simple and obvious.

movie icon
Clip from "Brassed Off": 1.1MB/31 sec. QuickTime movie

Entire movie trailer: 4.8MB/2 min, 13 sec. QuickTime movie

Tara Fitzgerald is just as dazzling, an energetic performer with a smile a mile wide. She is particularly good while taking the wind out of some of her more lecherous fellow band members. Again, there is a lightness of spirit in her performance that gives the film, even with its downbeat subject matter, a welcome buoyancy.

Things are going so well for most of the movie, it's quite a shock when Herman suddenly seems to take leave of his senses. Particularly inept is a subplot concerning Danny Boy's son, Phil (played by Stephen Tompkinson), one of the struggling laborers who must take on work as a clown at children's birthday parties in order to make ends meet. The tone of these scenes wavers uneasily between extremely obvious comedy and blown-cork, plight-of-the-worker monologues. Suffice it to say that a man trying to hang himself while wearing a complete clown suit (including big ol' shoes) doesn't seem quite as horrifying as it probably should.

Things unexpectedly become melodramatic in the extreme. Postlethwaite's Danny Boy has developed black lung, you see, and the boys want to win the big competition before he joins that brass band in the sky. One guess as to how it all ends, and, no, a huge volcano does not erupt in the middle of Yorkshire, killing the whole cast. An absurdly didactic speech in the final scene feels more like a pamphlet than a logical progression of the story, and quite nearly topples the whole thing. Before this completely unexpected series of stumbles, though, "Brassed Off" is a great deal of old-fashioned fun, and well worth your time. By all means see it if you don't like clowns.

"Brassed Off" is wholly inoffensive, with a little bit of profanity and one positively chaste kiss. No nudity, and a couple of mildly shot punch outs. Rated R, though it's difficult to imagine why. 107 minutes.

 
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