The faces in the deeply affecting British film "Brassed Off" are arresting. Close camera shots focus on bulbous, red noses, floppy ears, heavy brows and wet, runny eyes.
They are homely faces, and one of this endearing film's achievements is that they quickly become dear, too, like the faces of friends, which you no longer consider as handsome or not. They are simply welcome.
The faces in "Brassed Off" are weary and drawn. They belong to coal miners in the dreary, fictitious town of Grimley nearly a decade ago. Like many real Yorkshire cities of that time, the town is threatened by Margaret Thatcher's Tory government, which aims to close the coal pit though it remains profitable and vital to Grimley's survival. But the Tories want to go nuclear, and 250,000 jobs aren't going to stand in their way.
These are grim matters, but screenwriter and director Mark Herman never allows them to overwhelm his film, which remains buoyant even as the hard-pressed souls of Grimley are relentlessly squeezed. "Brassed Off" is not about defeat, but dignity in defeat.
The film is sentimental and its politics black-and-white. Still, "Brassed Off" is as rousing and immensely likable as a superb brass band, which the film is ostensibly about. And if you don't feel tears well up during the movie's version of "Danny Boy," you're either stronger than I am or a member of Mrs. Thatcher's immediate family.
The film opens jauntily. A band plays in the background as white spheres of light merrily bounce into view. They look like those dancing balls on television screens that encourage sing-alongs. But these balls resolve themselves into the lights on the helmets of coal miners trudging through a tunnel.
Herman immediately establishes the twin loyalties of these men: to the coal pit, which occupies them by day, and to the colliery brass band, which occupies them by night. The band has survived 110 years, but with the pit facing closure, the commitment of its members is ebbing -- except for Danny, the band director.
While the rest of Grimley frets over a monumental union vote that will determine the future of the mine, Danny (Pete Postlethwaite) is consumed by getting to the national brass band championships at Albert Hall. When members of the band protest their continued existence during the threat to the mine, Danny looks at them as if they have blasphemed Rossini.
"What's that got to do with this?" he asks. "This is music, and it's music that matters."
As Danny, Postlethwaite, an Oscar nominee for "In the Name of the Father" and currently in "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," is at once exasperating and irresistible, communicating pleasure or irritation with the merest tilt of his head.
Danny's single-mindedness for a time blinds him even to the desperation of his son Phil (Stephen Tompkinson, in an impressive movie debut), who is battered by conflicting loyalties -- to wife, to children, to union. His watery eyes are forever in search of a way out without finding one.
The band is ready to pack it in when Gloria Mullins (Tara Fitzgerald of "The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain") walks into their rehearsal with fluegelhorn in hand. A descendant of miners, she reinvigorates middle-aged men the way only a pretty girl can.
She does considerably more for Ewan McGregor ("Trainspotting)" who gives a sweetly vulnerable performance as Andy, a young miner for whom love is the only alternative to disillusionment.
Through no fault of her own, Fitzgerald's character, who is secretly employed by management but believes she's helping her friends, isn't quite believable. A daughter of miners who have endured bitter strikes is not likely to rely on management's good faith.
The film certainly doesn't, but management is only a fill-in for the film's truest target, the Iron Lady, Mrs. Thatcher, toward whom the movie is nakedly hostile. It's hard to imagine a mainstream American film treating a recent American president -- even a mediocre former actor -- so venomously.
As passionate as they are, the politics of "Brassed Off" are simplistic and lead to an uplifting ending that feels forced. But the movie is rescued by masterly, touching performances. Herman captures the sense of people who lose everything and then lose a little bit more. When the band members blow their horns, you have the clear sense that they do it because there's nothing else left that they can do.
Starring Pete Postlethwaite, Ewan McGregor and Tara Fitzgerald
Directed by Mark Herman
Released by Miramax
Rated R (language)
Sun score: *** 1/2
Pub Date: 6/13/97