Three alternatives to summer's pseudoepics
By JOSEPH CUNNEEN
In a season of expensively ridiculous epics such as "Air Force One" and "Contact," it's pleasant to point out a few alternatives -- movies you can enjoy without feeling embarrassed or cheated.
Almost anyone but Mrs. Thatcher should like Brassed Off, for example, a rousing English comedy about a brass band in Grimley, a colliery town where the mines are about to be shut down. Although director/writer Mark Herman doesn't try to make the miners heroic, he does capture their wit, independence and basic decency. It quickly becomes clear that the one touch of glamour in the drab life of these people is the town's brass band, but it's also easy to see why some of its members are beginning to wonder, with everything falling apart, why they should go on playing.
Danny (Pete Postlethwaite), the band's leader, has complete faith in the importance of music; his comically expressive face reveals both inner discipline and contagious leadership. His position is under serious attack, however, until a highly attractive young woman walks in on a reluctant rehearsal. Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald) turns out to be the granddaughter of a deceased miner still remembered fondly as a flugelhorn player. As soon as she begins to blow on her instrument, it is obvious that this all-male group is ready to become inclusive. Though Gloria is as talented as she is attractive, what none of the men know is that her return to her Yorkshire birthplace was not for the sake of music. She's being paid by management to compile a report on the advisability of continuing mining operations there.
What makes "Brassed Off" work is that Herman helps us see the town realistically through the eyes of the miners. He moves the action briskly to provide insights into a wide range of characters and cuts between resistance activities in the town and discussions among the owners. The story centers on a band, and there is an increasing sense of exultation in its music, selections in themselves unremarkable -- tried and true numbers one might find in the repertoire of the Boston Pops. We are surprisingly moved when the band plays "The Londonderry Air" outside Danny's room to lend him support after he has a stroke.
Less successful, because too predictable, is the no-nonsense love affair between Gloria and Andy (Ewan McGregor), a handsome young band member. Also a tad conventional is Gloria's denunciation of the bosses after realizing they had made up their minds to close the mine even before asking for her report. If the plot isn't completely credible, however, Grimley involves and convinces us. The movie's sentimental streak is both endearing and amusing.
"Brassed Off" doesn't pretend to solve the economic problems of the coal industry or the inhabitants of Grimley, but it makes us laugh and cheer for "our side." Danny's son Phil (Stephen Tompkinson) is forced to put on a clown costume to earn a few pounds at children's parties. After several awkward routines, he delivers a stinging attack on the Tory Party with a statue of Christ in the background. "Brassed Off" is a ringing declaration of how important art is to a community, but when the band wins a national championship in London, Danny himself places politics over music with a rousing philippic against the government.
The pleasures of Shall We Dance? come more gradually and subtly, providing a more original film experience. Masasuko Suo's film ridicules the Japanese social code, which makes it unthinkable for a husband to take his wife out dancing. It's encouraging to report that the movie was a box office hit in Japan. No one should be reluctant to attend this Japanese movie, since the expressions on the dancers' faces, not the dialogue, carry the action. The only ones who will resist its appeal will be those impervious to both the charm and the comedy of Japanese tact.
The 42-year-old Shohei Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho) works hard at an accounting job, which has enabled him to support his wife and daughter and to acquire a car and a good home, but he finds his life desperately unfulfilling. By chance he catches a glimpse of Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari), a tall, slim, mysterious young woman looking out of the high window of a dance studio, and he decides to pursue her. Although Shohei is embarrassed that he might be seen entering a school for ballroom dancing, he is sufficiently determined to endure the humiliations of a beginners' class taught by the school's senior teacher.
The group Shohei joins is a wonderful collection of endearing misfits, including a colleague from his office who wears a wig and adopts an extravagantly macho approach to dancing. Mai remains aloof and melancholy, insisting that she never has any social relations with students. Shohei gradually becomes genuinely taken up with his new hobby, however, and it affects him in unexpected ways. He is more cheerful at home and unconsciously practices dance steps while sitting at his office.
Suo lets us enjoy the comical behavioral changes that develop in the students as they begin to develop greater skill. Meanwhile Shohei's wife, who has smelled perfume on her husband's shirt, is so troubled that she hires a private detective. Much of the fun of "Shall We Dance?" comes from the wild discrepancy between the wistful atmosphere of the dance studio and the lurid associations attached to ballroom dancing in Japan. Ironically, some pseudo-sophisticated U.S. reviewers have complained because the movie doesn't satisfy their overstimulated expectations. Suo is no more interested in sensationalism than in pleading the cause of neglected Japanese wives. His delicious comedy is primarily a celebration of dancing, reminding us that we should feel responsible for our partners.
It is not by chance that "Shall We Dance?" takes its title from the inspired number in "The King and I." Shohei's discovery of the joy of dancing knits together all the threads of the plot: It leads ultimately to a family reconciliation, helps make the beginners' class into a community and brings Mai out of her depression to dance at last with Shohei before leaving for the celebrated ballroom competition at Blackpool, England.
Mrs. Brown will introduce moviegoers to a side of Queen Victoria of which most will be unaware: a woman who provoked widespread gossip by seeming to fall under the sway of her personal servant John Brown, a favorite of her late husband Albert as head of the royal stables in Scotland. Director John Madden deliberately maintains a slow pace and observes the action with amused detachment. Although there is a historical nugget behind his story, fortunately he doesn't confuse it with a D.H. Lawrence novel.
Judi Dench does wonders with the inevitably restricted emotional range of a stern queen in deep mourning. Billy Connolly is attractive in the manly way he addresses Victoria as a human being who needs fresh air and comfort in the wake of her husband's death. "Mrs. Brown" skillfully exploits the glamour of the various royal houses, while revealing the stultifying absurdity of royal etiquette. Dench's queen is both appealingly vulnerable and sufficiently intelligent to see that her political advisers are constantly trying to manipulate her. The queen's private secretary (Geoffrey Palmer) is inevitably concerned that her growing intimacy with her servant will be exploited by the opposition to undermine the government.
"Mrs. Brown" is presumably accurate in presenting the dates and changes of locale of the Queen's movements, but does not try to resolve all the questions about her relationship with Brown. Connolly makes the latter attractively self-assured at the outset. As the movie proceeds, however, he seems almost despotic in the way he exercises control over the queen's whole entourage, even her fatuous son, Albert. At the end, when the queen has returned to performing her public duties, Brown seems pathetically unbalanced, and his understanding of protecting the queen has spun wildly out of control.
"Mrs. Brown" is highly superior Masterpiece Theater entertainment. Even with all the other fine performances, Anthony Sher as Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli steals the show. He rightly sees how amusing the situation is and how inept the people are with whom he has to deal. Though not without sympathy for both the queen and Brown -- he's the only one who knows how to appeal to the latter -- he has all he can do not to burst out laughing.
Joseph Cunneen is coeditor of Cross Currents.
National Catholic Reporter, September 5, 1997