Tuesday 1 December 2009

The Full Monty (1997)

Director: Peter Cattaneo
Stars: Robert Carlyle, Tom Wilkinson, Mark Addy, Lesley Sharp, Emily Woof, Steve Huison, Paul Barber, Hugo Speer and Deirdre Costello
British film was enjoying something of a renaissance in the nineties, not just with serious films with intended global outreach like The Madness of King George, The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love, but with a modern equivalent to the Ealing comedies of a few decades earlier. Quintessentially British from the accents and the slang down to stories rooted in British class and culture, films like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Brassed Off and The Full Monty weren't expected to be successful outside of Blighty but somehow managed that difficult task. This one currently holds the record for the highest grossing British film ever made, over $250m.

Like so many British comedies (I refuse to call them Britcoms), this one is another film showing the struggle to succeed against the odds. It's set in Sheffield, a working class industrial town in South Yorkshire, described in the bright and cheerful opening newsreel as a city on the move, all thanks to steel. 25 years later though, we're in Thatcher's Britain, with industry fighting the unions and the spread of wealth spreading a little further. In particular the steel factory at which most of our heroes work has closed, and without any other work to be had Gaz and Dave find themselves trapped inside it stealing a girder, escaping only to get stuck on top of a sinking car in a canal.

Gaz is Robert Carlyle, following up on a huge hit with Trainspotting the year earlier, and Dave is Mark Addy, who was only really known from TV at the time. They're both utterly believable as working class men struggling to survive in hard times, their talents apparently no longer required. You can see people like this in every pub in Britain, pretty much every night. It's only as they're walking home, drenched from the canal, that they realise that there's a talent that they all have that's always in demand, as amply demonstrated by the line of women already queuing up for the Chippendales at the Millthorpe working men's club that night, including Dave's wife Jean.

It's women only, of course, so they sneak in through a bathroom window to see what the fuss is all about, leaving with the core of an idea that they could become strippers. After all if women flock to pay £10 a pop to see men taking their clothes off in a club, why can't they do it? It would certainly help to raise the £700 Gaz has racked up in overdue child support and assuage his ex-wife's determination to seek sole custody of their son, Nathan, who tags along throughout most of this story. They even know someone who can dance: their former foreman Gerald, who is as out of work as they are, though he hasn't told his wife yet and is frantic to find a new job before she finds out or books a skiing holiday. Soon they pick up a few others, some through surreptitious auditions, one through saving him from committing suicide in his car.
Britain has always told stories about the lower class in film, whether it be the kitchen sink dramas of the fifties and sixties that depress as much as they entertain, or the comedies that took a poke at the upper classes, usually in the form of someone like Terry-Thomas. This is almost a textbook for how to translate that sort of story into the modern day, along with films like Strictly Ballroom or a more recent British comedy, Bend It Like Beckham. It adds plenty of swearing that, to be honest, kitchen sink dramas like This Sporting Life or Look Back in Anger would have used if only they could have got by with it back then. It adds an undertone of sex, though the only nudity we see is a little bare butt at the tail end of the film, pun intended. If you pretend that there's no sex or swearing, you may be able to see this in black and white with people like Sid James, Jim Dale or Ian Carmichael, maybe Alistair Sim in the Gerald role, everything Ealing era humour rather than Carry On of course.

It's written by Simon Beaufoy, who would go onto adapt Vikas Swarup's novel Slumdog Millionaire for the screen to even greater critical success than this. The Full Monty received four Oscar nominations but only won for the score, Beaufoy's screenplay losing out to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck for Good Will Hunting. By comparison, his win for Slumdog Millionaire was only one of eight Oscars that film took home, and it lost out on two more. Bizarrely Danny Boyle, who also won for Slumdog Millionaire, turned down the opportunity to direct this because he wasn't impressed with the story. I'm not sure why. Beaufoy captures every element of the paradigm without ever seeming to pander to convention. Everything looks great for our heroes for a while, then it all falls apart only to come together at the end, so no, you won't be surprised how this ends up, but how we get there is far more enjoyable and believable than you could reasonably expect.

These would be strippers have every setback in the book from moment one. They can't dance, for one, and they hardly look like Chippendales. Hugo Speer as Guy is the only one who even remotely has the sort of chiselled body that's expected; instead they have Dave who happily describes himself as a 'fat bastard', Lomper who's more pasty white than I am and Horse, who might be a little old for this sort of thing, even though he's a lot younger than Gerald. They have no idea about rhythm, though they get better once they work out how to describe dance moves through reference to the Arsenal front line. By the time they get close to showtime, it's all falling apart: Dave has got a job at Asda as a security guard, Lomper's mother dies and Gerald gets kicked out of his house after he can't hide his lack of a job any longer.

They even get arrested, for indecent exposure, while practising their moves in front of Horse's family in the steel factory, but by this time they've become committed to this adventure in their minds as much as in their big words. The best scenes are where we notice this but they don't, when they start doing impromptu steps to the music in the unemployment office or when they rewind the security camera footage in the police station to determine who's out of step. By this point they've really become Hot Metal and we know they're going to succeed, despite whatever other calamities present themselves before showtime.

Two things leapt out at me here that don't quite tie to the film, as it was originally released. One is the choice of music for the Chippendales, Gary Glitter's I'm the Leader of the Gang, unfortunate only in hindsight. How many established routines had to be changed when Glitter made his transition from seventies glam rock icon to the most prominent paedophile in the world? His music would seem to be perfect for this sort of material, if only that connotation didn't arise, but hindsight means that it always will, just like everything Jeffrey Jones says in a movie is going to end up with a slightly different subtext or, as I'm finding recently, every movie Grace Kelly was in has some sort of dialogue that is ironic only because she later became royalty.

The other is a reprise to my comments about British slang and culture. The very names of films like Brassed Off and The Full Monty are examples of British slang that would mean nothing to anyone outside the country. In fact The Full Monty confused American studio execs no end because there's no character called Monty anywhere in the film. These are probably the same execs who required that the 'III' be dropped off the end of The Madness of King George III because they felt that American audiences would wonder why they hadn't seen the first two films in the series. Yet while some US cinemas played this up, printing special leaflets to translate English to American, apparently that wasn't enough and the version I saw on IFC was an Americanised one, where some dialogue was overdubbed to be clearer to this foreign audience.

So 'football' becomes 'soccer', 'girl guides' become 'girl scouts', 'DIY' becomes 'how to'. Even a Barclaycard becomes a Mastercard, like it wasn't obvious what they were talking about given the context. It's sad to see this because surely the very concept of watching a foreign film, even if it's made in a similar language, implies the likelihood and the joy of learning something about another culture. Changing such minor pieces of dialogue only suggests cultural laziness of the highest degree, something that should be relegated to the stereotype of Americans not played up to in such a shameful manner. This film deserves better.


DGraphics said...

Over a dozen years later and this film still holds up as an enjoyable view.

Robert said...

The film does deserve better and so does the American audience. The US film industry (and media companies in general) have a very low opinion of the average American so it makes perfect scense that they would make such idiotic changes. This is nothing new, really, they dubbed Mel Gibson in Mad Max...oh and they subtitle Americans from the South!