Published September 1, 1997
Britain may be the only country in the world where it is still possible to make movies which glorify and romanticize and sentimentalize an old-fashioned view of masculinity—and have it come off looking progressive. Last spring we had Brassed Off which traded off its romantic notions of a stag-line of Yorkshire coal-miners down t’pit or in t’pub or playin’ in t’brass band against a virulent anti-Thatcherism (the lads never liked “that woman” ) which made such retrograde stuff OK. But now The Full Monty gives us romantic notions of Yorkshire steel workers at t’mill (or, more accurately, not at t’mill), down t’pub and working t’strip show without so much as a political moment to make it all OK. All right! They don’t even have to abuse Mrs Thatcher for taking away their jobs in order to make us feel all nostalgic and sentimental about working class manhood, scarcely changed since D.H. Lawrence made it fashionable 85 years ago.
It should be noted, however, in case you care about the fact, that the title is a lie. The “full monty,” a term derived from the prostitute’s tariff for her most expensive service, refers in the picture to full-frontal male nudity. Six unemployed steel workers in Sheffield—Gary, or Gaz (Robert Carlyle), Gerald (Tom Wilkinson), Dave (Mark Addy), Lomper (Steve Huison), Horse (Paul Barber) and Guy (Hugo Speer)—see a theatre-full of the local lasses going nuts over some Chippendales dancers and decide in desperation to turn to stripping to make some money. You can pretty much guess the comical misadventures they encounter on the way to putting on their show. But in the end we don’t get the full monty. The fictitious audience does, but the scene is shot from the back so we only see the lads’ not-very attractive backsides.
The irritating thing about a film like this is that it so effortlessly pulls all the right levers to produce wholly predictable emotional responses. This would be OK if it were at a funeral, where you’re only supposed to have one response, but in a movie you can’t help feeling a bit hemmed in and strait-jacketed by the film-makers’ overdetermination as to where your emotions are meant to go. The poor unemployed men of the Sheffield steel works respond to their predicament by divorcing and turning to crime (Gaz), by lying to their wives (Gerald), or by becoming impotent (Dave) or suicidal (Lomper). In addition, Gaz has a young son called Nathan (William Snape), whom his bitch of an ex-wife, Mand (Emily Woof), is threatening to prevent him from even visiting unless he can come up with £750 in support money.
Obviously, our sympathies are engaged—but they are such obvious sympathies that it is easy to overlook the fact that these men do not at all have to strip to put food on the table. They could, for instance, take a job in the packing department of Mand’s textile mill for £2.50 (about $4.00) an hour, a job at which Gaz turns up his finicky nose. Similarly, Dave considers it some kind of shame to take a job as a security guard in a discount department store—though not, of course, to show off his “wedding tackle” to hundreds of screaming women. I came to this film with a good will, and with a pre-conceived sympathy for Gaz’s lament that soon men (as traditionally understood) will no longer exist, except in zoos. But, in spite of quite a few good jokes, I ended up thinking that the film’s romanticism about British working class machismo can only make that kind of manhood less, rather than more likely to survive. Gaz and his mates are already in the zoo, and that’s apparently where they like it.