In both Britain and the United States, small towns are officially seen as paradigms of civic virtue and agrarian purity. In those books and films that take a contrary view, however, the American town is usually hell, while the British one is purgatory. (This may reflect the U.K.’s compactness; it doesn’t take long to reach the sanctuary of London from just about anywhere.) Escape from the small (usually northern) town is a longstanding British theme, reflected in such early-’60s plays and films as Billy Liar, A Taste of Honey, and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and brought into the ’90s by such latter-day Angry Young Men as Morrissey, Ken Loach, and Mike Leigh. (The latter’s work usually takes place in London, but one whose occupants are mostly stunted and provincial.) The latest examples of the genre, Brassed Off and Twin Town, take opposite paths: The former is traditional and mostly sentimental, the latter contemporary and frequently scabrous.
A rather old-fashioned Brit-leftist romance, Brassed Off begins in a small Yorkshire mining town and, naturally, ends in London. Much happens in the interim, which is the film’s principal charm. Intercutting deftly, writer/director Mark Herman provides enough plot for several less ambitious movies (although they’d be even more conventional than this one). Sometimes, Herman does seem to be in too much of a hurry. When, for example, the romance between Andy (Trainspotting’s Ewan McGregor) and Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald) hits a snag, the relationship has barely been established. The director has to make Andy call Gloria “the love of my life” so we’ll realize the significance of the crisis.
The film’s real crisis, however, is the fate of the Grimley Colliery, a venerable coal mine threatened by the Thatcherite British Coal Board. If the colliery is shut down, Grimley’s major source of jobs and its entire way of life will be lost. The tootling metaphor for that is the Grimley Colliery band, a century-old brass ensemble led by retired miner Danny (Pete Postlethwaite). With their jobs on the line, the musicians lose interest in the group (whose martial tunes are actually played by a real colliery band from Grimethorpe). But Danny intends to take the band to the championships at London’s Royal Albert Hall once before his death, which he knows (but isn’t telling) is imminent.
Andy is a radical and a trumpeter; Gloria is a liberal and a flugelhorn player. As Grimley teens, they groped each other”top only,” Andy gallantly tells his matesbut then Gloria went off to college while Andy went down into the pits. She returns and joins the band, whose members soon find suspicious her extensive knowledge of the possible colliery shutdown. When they decide she’s not to be trusted, it just reveals the unlikelihood of Gloria’s having been accepted in the all-male ensemble in the first place.
The righteous crusade of a group of plucky losers from the wrong side of the tracks is a commonplace oneyou’ve seen, perhaps, The Mighty Ducks?but Herman does much to place the plot’s predictably uplifting moments in an authentic context. As Danny alternates between inspiring the band and coughing up blood, he barely notices that his son Phil (British TV actor Stephen Tompkinson in his film debut) is losing everything. Unemployed since he was arrested in the 1984 miners’ strike, Phil struggles to support his wife and children by working as a clown for children’s parties. When his wife finally leaves him, it’s because she has discovered the receipt for the new trombone he bought at his father’s insistence. Ultimately, both Danny and Phil deliver speeches on the plight of the working class under Tory rule. But where Danny’s warms the heart, Phil’s grabs the throat.
Since the renaissance announced by 1985’s My Beautiful Laundrette, small, offbeat English films have done well in American arthouses. The occasional Welsh film, however, is another matter. Of such recent examples as On the Black Hill, Second Best, August, and Hedd Wyn, none made it into wide U.S. commercial releaseeven though they’re mostly in English; moreover, Second Best stars William Hurt, August was directed by Anthony Hopkins, and Hedd Wyn was nominated for the 1994 foreign-film Oscar. Twin Town, however, has the advantage of being billed as “the Welsh Trainspotting,” a tag that owes as much to the dark comedy’s executive producers (Trainspotting producer Andrew MacDonald and director Danny Boyle) as to its energetic nihilism.
Twin Town is set in Swansea, which occupies a scenic coastal perch in a region also once known for coal mines. But director/scripter Kevin Allen (an actor and documentarian making his fiction-feature debut) and co-writer Paul Burden show little interest in the old Wales, aside from a passing reference to Dylan Thomas, Swansea’s favorite son. Indeed, their essential point seems to be that Wales, some eight centuries after being colonized by Norman invaders, is now a global cultural garbage dump, populated by pseudo-American vulgarians who live for Elvis, karaoke, massage-parlor sex, and illicit drugs. Ultimately, the movie becomes a knowing parody of the Hollywood gangster epiccomplete with a severed animal’s head left as a warningas the characters act out a revenge drama whose grand scale mocks their tiny lives.
Technically, Swansea is not a small town; it’s the second-largest city in Wales, but with only about 200,000 residents. Twin Town’s population is considerably smaller: The film recounts a class war between two clans, the trailer-trash Lewises and the nouveau-riche Cartwrights. At first, it’s hard to take sides. The film’s protagonists, the dope-addled, car-stealing “Lewis twins” Jeremy and Julian (Rhys Ifans and Llyr Evans), are far more disagreeable than the Trainspotting crew. Despite being largely responsible for the battle that engulfs the two families, however, the twins eventually achieve a twisted sort of dignity.
It’s clear that the “twins” (who are not really twins, although Ifans and Evans are brothers, with the former using the un-Anglicized spelling of his surname) have always been trouble. But the conflict really begins when their father Fatty (Huw Ceredig), a sometime roofer, injures himself working for Bryn Cartwright (William Thomas), a local contractor, rugby club chairman, and sometime cocaine-shipment financier. The twins demand compensation, but Bryn rejects their claim, so they sneak into the local karaoke club and shower Bryn’s daughter Bonny (Jenny Evans) with urine as she sings “I Will Survive.” From there, the hostilities escalate drastically, as Bryn enlists his dope-dealing colleagues, crooked cops Terry and Greyo (Dougray Scott and Dorien Thomas), to put the Lewises in their place. The brutish Terry outdoes himself, leaving the twins little choice but to retaliate harshly. (Terry is the character most obsessed with escaping Swansea, but it’s the twins who finally make the Trainspotting-style getaway.)
The film opens with a brief prologue that’s been added for American audiences, although its premise won’t make much sense until the action concludes. Indeed, some of Twin Town’s transgressive power has surely been lost in shipping. Stateside audiences won’t share in the shock of accepting such actors as Ifans (who has appeared in such upscale dramas as August) and Evans and Thomas (both regulars on Pobol Y Cym, a Welsh-language TV soap opera) as drug-dealing louts in a Wales that’s more perverse than picturesque.
Twin Town is even more frantic than Trainspotting, and its use of music more wide-ranging. While the latter merely set the period in song, Twin Town celebrates the current Welsh-rock boom with selections from Catatonia and Super Furry Animals (of which Ifans is a former member), mocks Britain’s swinging ’60s with songs from Petulia Clark and Mungo Jerry, indulges the timeless kitsch of the karaoke crowd, and ends with the archetypal sound of a Welsh men’s choir as the twins perform a solemn ceremony. There’s one more element in this cruel yet surprisingly satisfying final scene, one whose surprise value shouldn’t be compromised. Suffice it to say that Twin Town cuts its sentimentality with much stronger stuff than Brassed Off can muster.CP