Not One of Us

Conducting Himself: Pete Postlethwaite in Brassed Off

Brassed Off

Lagoon Cinema

Broken English

Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

THE DARK SIDE of community is the "us/not you" dichotomy. Looking in the mirror and out the window at the same time, a family, a culture, or a town ensures its survival through a mix of self-definition and exclusion. This process can fuel both wars and stories, and some of them can be funny--even the wars.

Brassed Off is mostly funny, with a supporting chorus of anger. As the Northern England town of Grimley faces a government-imposed shutdown of its mine, a brass band (all of them miners) faces the option of either shutting down itself or embarking on a last-ditch attempt at fame by entering a national competition. What a choice! In fact, with a pair of deadlines such as these, could any screenplay fail to flog them to death? Sure enough, Brassed Off uses every scrap of self-generated irony, and throws in the added bonus of a new, female band member.

Actually, Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald) is both new and old: a woman
who conveniently "dabbles in fluegel," at once a long-absent native and an interloper. (Tellingly, she joins the band before her connection to the mine shutdown is revealed.) Her status as the opposite of all these men makes for a nifty plot catalyst--and she plays a mean fluegel, too. Musically speaking, the movie reaches an early crescendo with Gloria's audition piece, the "Concierto de Aranjuez": a passionate orchestration of Spanish themes (once adapted quite differently by Miles Davis), which helps to reveal that however much these grimy men may forget their parts of speech ("You goin' down to Pub?"), they do feel their music.

Since each of these disillusioned, Grimleyan victims of Tory economics also works as an individual character, this otherwise contemporary story often resembles the '50s slew of English-village screwball comedies like Alexander Mackendrick's Tight Little Island (about greedy Scotsmen who seek to benefit from a shipwreck through its jetsam of lost booze). Brassed Off's charm factor also wins out because its two most pathetic characters--the bandleader Danny (Pete Postlethwaite) and his hapless son Phil (Stephen Tompkinson)--are the most patently endearing. Until the last minute, Danny seems concerned only with band matters, while the goofy Phil loses his wife, his kids, and his possessions while trying to eke out a second income as "Mr. Chuckles," a party clown.

In many ways, Brassed Off is Mike Leigh Lite, and perhaps its trans-Atlantic punch has been diluted by Tony Blair's recent Labour victory. But the movie does offer some genuine characters, a decent (if hardly essential) brass-band version of "Danny Boy," and the thrill of seeing economically doomed
but charming miners resist capitalist greed. And above all, it
provides another chance to watch Postlethwaite wiggle his Adam's apple, blink, and turn his bulbous nose in the direction of something interesting, goofy, serious, or surprising. Whether he's Mr. Kobayashi (The Usual Suspects), a deliverer of neon-green magic worms (James
and the Giant Peach
), a big-game hunter (The Lost World), or just a
humble but obsessed bandleader, Postlethwaite is a community of one. In other words, he's not us, and that's a blessing.

By contrast, the community in Broken English is just a family. Set in lower-middle-class Auckland, New Zealand, the film maps the gulfs in identity caused by the "broken English" of new immigrants. Nina (Aleksandra Vujcic) is a new arrival from the hell of Croatia's battle with the Serbs; while working as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant, she falls heavily for a Maori chef named Eddie (Julian Arahanga), but this union angers her possessive father Ivan (Rade Serbedzija). Meanwhile, some Chinese immigrants are hoping for an arranged marriage. Ethnic rinsing--if not actual cleansing--seems imminent.

Broken English traffics in Romeo and Juliet/Rebel Without a Cause territory. But Nina is neither a Juliet nor a rebel; though proud of her ability to withstand combat (the film opens with her monologue about the orgasmic thrill of being bombed), she's primarily a thrill-seeker. In fact, she's just plain stupid, and her father is a violent boor. Likewise, once the movie has unveiled its early NC-17 sex scene and established its tensions, there isn't much point. Separation from the homeland causes bloody outbursts? Sex is the antidote to strife? Family trees benefit from grafting? The film really is "broken," as in unfinished, because its definition of community is too singular, too narrow. The final message is a weird apology tacked onto what was supposed to be an ultimatum after a beating. This is how a movie shoots itself in the foot.

 
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