Film review

Solidarity forever
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's 'Two Days, One Night' and Matthew Warchus's 'Pride', reviewed

“The only way to stop crying is to fight for your job,” says Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) to his wife Sandra (Marion Cottilard) in the Belgian film Two Days, One Night. Sandra has been on sick leave from her job at a solar panel factory, suffering from clinical depression. She’s on the verge of returning to work when she gets a call – the film begins with a ringing phone – letting her know there’s no job to return to. Her sixteen workmates have voted to take a bonus, instead of taking her back. As she hangs up the phone Sandra says to herself, “you mustn’t cry”. But she does cry, and copiously, her self-worth shattering like glass.

Two Days, One Night is directed by the brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Europe’s foremost purveyors of naturalistic cinema. They are what Ken Loach might still be if Ken Loach worked with better scripts and showed more than a passing interest in his female characters. Marion Cottilard is, by far, the highest-profile actor they have ever cast. It was their job, they have remarked, “to bring her to a level where she could be banal”. They have nearly succeeded, and if banality is not quite what’s on offer, then Cottilard as Sandra has at least been made – has made herself – insubstantial. Sandra thinks she doesn’t matter, and, loving husband aside, there is little in the world to counter her belief.

The camera follows Sandra in small, anxious circuits around the town of Seraing – the Dardennes have filmed almost exclusively in this French-speaking region, where they were raised – as she spends a weekend trying to persuade her workmates into changing their minds. There will be a new vote on Monday morning. A majority of workers at the factory have to vote for Sandra, rather than their bonus, for her to hang onto her job. The dialogue is repetitive, as Sandra pleads with each of them in turn, but never boring. There is too much at stake. Each conversation is a brief, one-act drama, with little said but a lot on show. We see newborn babies, failing marriages and cash-in-hand second jobs; there is hope and fear and rudeness and defensiveness. Sandra’s humiliation, and her workmates’ discomfort, is always right on the surface.

Two Days, One Night is a film about the world that we currently inhabit, and how lonely it has made each of us – especially at work, which we increasingly regard, or are required to regard, as the whole of life’s purpose. Sandra says that she wants to be at work, not “alone on the dole”, but the prospect of returning to work appears unbearable to her, too. She depends on bottled water and Xanax to get her through each worried hour. She has no union to defend her rights. If all this sounds like an exercise in relentless misery, it isn’t. What the film and its characters convey to us, cumulatively, is a struggle for and towards dignity.

It’s an emotional tenor, and a political position, shared by the British film Pride – though in style the two films couldn’t be farther apart. The Dardenne brothers work with natural light, long takes and diagetic sound only. Pride, on the other hand, opens with archival footage of the 1984 British miners’ strike soundtracked to the union anthem ‘Solidarity Forever’. It’s a film of glitter and frosted perms and British character actors: Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy, Paddy Considine. It is a film about the bitterest, most prolonged industrial dispute in contemporary British history which manages to be deeply, genuinely joyful.

Pride is based on the real-life alliance between a group of London-based gay and lesbian activists and a mining village in the coalfields of South Wales. Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners began rattling their buckets on the London streets during the early days of the strike. A year later, with strikers being starved back to work, they were still fundraising. The film mines – to embrace the obvious pun – the situational comedy arising from a community of flamboyant, radical queers meeting a community of provincial, though equally radical, unionists. Disco arrives on the dance floor of the working man’s club, and, inevitably, Welsh grandmothers discover gay porn.

The film hits some obvious notes, and some sentimental ones, but it also surprises. It does not present the meeting of these two groups as a grudging coalition of irreconcilable interests, because it wasn’t. What the miners and the gay community had in common, above all, was a sense of being treated as “the enemy within”, to use Thatcher’s own characterisation of the unionists who refused to concede to her. They swap tips on how to deal with police harassment and media misrepresentation. Their solidarity is real, the result of courage and work on both sides. Pits and perverts, as one of Murdoch’s tabloids phrased it at the time – a phrase that the alliance took on as their own.

The miners’ strike was lost, and these former mining villages, outside of the cinema screen, are still living with the consequences. But something, Pride suggests, and not entirely fancifully, was salvaged: a sense of having fought on the right side of history, even if the right side was the losing side. There is more to life than work, and more to dignity than being granted permission merely to survive. “Yes, it is bread we fight for,” go the words of another old union song performed here, which brought me to tears, “but we fight for roses too”.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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