The inevitabilities that would have followed pit closures could have been prevented. I think that, to me, is more important a point than the actual closures themselves. My grandfather worked at a pit since he left school, and he was lucky to find gainful employment immediately after the closure of his. Brassed Off focuses on the waning days of coal mining, the final few pits to remain vigilant in the face of fractured Thatcherism that tore through the North with unrelenting, certainly permanent damage. There’s a verified reason why so many chant “Maggie’s in the mud”, and the lack of alternative for many Northern workers has destroyed economic safety for many families, some of whom are experiencing those problems still. Brassed Off, then, looks to provide an alternative to keeping the minds of the workforce from dipping into despair, through the form of music.
A surprisingly strong cast lead the charge in this one, with Pete Postlethwaite pairing up with a pre-Trainspotting Ewan McGregor, detailing two different viewpoints of life in a pit orchestra. The differences certainly aren’t strong, nor are they amazingly detailed in their outlook, they’re just enough to get by, but that’s all Brassed Off needs. If it can lean into these performances and the rather predictable ways they develop, then director Mark Herman can get away with a decent flick. Solid performances overall, but immediately forgettable. We have several pairs of safe hands leading us through a story of working-class woes, but to expect anything more than competent with a film so deep-rooted in underwhelming melodrama would be foolish.
To an extent, I do believe Brassed Off is careful enough with its subject matter. It balances the raw, emotional side of pit closures with the feel-good attitude a bit of music can bring to those with no escape from life. There are storylines and performances in this Herman piece that feel hammy or removed from reality, but they do a grand enough job of getting to the larger point at play. There’s a nice bit of history to unpack throughout this one, it’s often tucked away, moved to the side in the face of plot progression and rather ghastly, predictable subplots, though, a real shame since Brassed Off has great potential in its cast and direction. It never hits the highs it should, though, and when you look at this remarkable cast, you expect more than a so-so experience.
To be “brassed off” is to be exasperated, and that does seem to be the general feeling not just of the characters within this late 90s piece, but also with the crew. Provided with the opportunity to craft a grounded, loving piece dedicated to those who lost their jobs, families, safety nets, and sometimes their lives, Herman provides a piece that smacks of underwhelming prose and ill-conceived, flatlining characters. It reminded me of Military Wives, and that’s never a positive. There’s not enough detail, nor is there anything in the way of personal style from behind the camera, and it’s a great shame. What could’ve been a roaring cry for workers is instead a dud note featuring brass bands and soured sentimentalism.