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Working-Class Heroes.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

APRIL 13, 1998: 

How come working-class fellas in British movies look like the guys in The Full Monty, but working-class fellas in American movies look like Leonardo DiCaprio? Is it because Americans can't stand the thought of not being either rich or beautiful? (Just imagine what Titanic would have been like with Steve Buscemi in the lead.)

Anyway, English cinema is chock-a-block with convincing renditions of working men and women, the kind you'll find in every street-corner pub in the UK. And if it tends to romanticize their foibles a bit, it usually also keeps at least one foot on the curb.

That's certainly the case with The Full Monty (1997, R), just released on video. Although the film's central premise—five not-so-buff unemployed steelworkers decide to make some quick cash by putting on a strip show—is pretty implausible, its scruffy charm and abundant laughs overwhelm any skepticism. As the men prepare for their big day, they're forced to confront all sorts of hang-ups about masculinity and identity (this may be the first comedy ever about male body-image anxiety). In a Hollywood movie, the guys would go on to win an Olympic medal or something; here, it's enough that they win a little respect.

For a double-feature of working-class comedy, check out another recent film, Brassed Off (1997, R). It's about a coal-mining town's brass band struggling to survive as the mine itself is threatened with closure. The film is more bittersweet and more explicitly political than The Full Monty—it's an all-out assault on Tory heartlessness—and the central romance between two band members (Ewan McGregor and Tara Fitzgerald) seems tacked-on for box-office appeal. Still, McGregor is his usual radiant self—none of his peers on this side of the Atlantic, not even Leonardo, can match his effortless screen charisma. And Pete Postlethwaite transcends his hackneyed role as the obsessive band director for whom music is life. (If you listen closely to his rousing speech at the end, you'll find out where those lines at the beginning of that Chumbawamba song came from.)

A dozen years ago, another British film gave a down-to-earth glimpse of single women's lives in England's industrial North. Letter to Brezhnev (1986, R) is based on the true story of two Liverpool women who fall in love with visiting Russian sailors. After the sailors leave, one of the women starts a letter-writing campaign to get permission to rejoin her beau. It's the kind of film that gives phrases like "funny and heartwarming" a good name.

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