BEAUTIFUL THING (UK 1995) **
There is much in common between the older pictures and the newer, but also differences, including the fact that working classes are often subjects of comedies. Even when they are not, even if the films float on a sea of troubles, the tone can be upbeat, as if the inheritors of Angry Young Men (and women) who used to made the works of the 50s and 60s are now still young and critical but no longer angry.
Such un-angries are Jonathan Harvey, who was 24 when his play "Beautiful Thing" opened to much praise in London, in 1994. Or the play's director, Hattie Macdonald, who worked closely with Harvey on adapting the play for the screen. For both it was their first film work.
The movie's opening is slightly surrealistic, as an Indian teacher clad in a sari gives orders to a melange of schoolboys on their athletic field. We then move to the main venue, where the film was made during a heat wave in "the blistering" and "sweltering" summer of 1995. These may be British criteria, as the absence of sweat and the clothing of the characters do not suggest furnace conditions to me! The place is the Thameshead Estate in Southeast London. "Estate" may, among Yanks, conjure up visions of gentility, but is another British euphemism for low-rent public housing.
The dwellers are the usual Brits -- whose accents badly need subtitles for all but UK audiences. The focus is on three teenagers (Jamie, Ste and Leah, who live in contiguous apartments), Jamie's mom Sandra, and her current, younger lover Tony. They are all nice people, as it turns out.
Jamie is self-conscious, indifferent to the all-important sports and sometimes bullied by his schoolmates. He often argues with his mother. Sten excels at sports yet gets regularly beaten up by his alcoholic father and his drug-dealing older brother. Next door, Leah, who lives with her mother, is black, a school drop-out and a devotee of the music of Mama Cass (and the Mamas and the Papas). She plays it very loudly at all times and dreams of singing like Mama Cass, but cannot, as she has champagne taste and beer talent.
Sandra, a chain-smoker and no mean drinker, is 35 --although she looked older to me-- works as a barmaid and is, within her limitations, a good mother. Tony, 27, is a post-hippie who becomes increasingly likable.
Within the focus, it is the Jamie-Ste relationship that gives the film its main theme. The boys get closer to one another as a refuge from various problems. Their friendship turns to love, a "beautiful thing to cling on to" says Jonathan Harvey. The first realization of this panics Jamie ("I'm a queer!"). He adjusts, however, and, curious, swipes a copy of "Gay Times" magazine and pours over it. A split, then a reunion with Ste follow, then visits to a gay/lesbian/transvestite pub. Finally both Tony ("That's cool!") and Mom. turn out to be supportive.
That's the gist of it. The movie picks up speed in its second half, has a pleasant closure, although Sandra's last-minute decision to drop Tony --presumably to devote more time to her son -- does not ring true.
The main interest for me was less the gay motif than the depiction of the working-class milieu. While the Estate is no hovel and has some nice green areas, its very segregation by class and its tightly joined quarters do breed the kind of communal life and social promiscuity (not in the sexual sense) that would limit horizons and condemn the denizens to be stuck in the lower rungs of society. I find this sad.
I do not think however that this is what the filmmakers are saying. Playwright Harvey writes that he explained to the boys that his (Harvey's) parents has reacted perfectly when they discovered he was gay. " I had to explain to the actors that certainly with me and my friends there wasn't much of a crisis about being gay. It was just natural to us. It's a happy love story; you can be gay and happy, you can be working-class and accept homosexuality."
This upbeat attitude may seem fresh in some quarters, but I believe that by now, close to the dawn of the year 2,000, acceptance of gayness should be treated as a given and not as a great discovery.
As for the depiction of the working classes, no matter how precise, at the risk of being called a snob I must confess that still more of this naturalism is getting to be a bit monotonous, in spite of some revealing dialogues.
"Beautiful Thing" is rife with the basic f-word. This reminded me of a British film I had just watched again, the excellent "Ladybird, Ladybird," by a master of working-class movies, Ken Loach. It also came to mind because of what is, in "Beautiful Thing", a major and perhaps unintended bonus: the way this and many other U.K. movies seem totally integrated in matters of race. They show no discrimination, no self-consciousness or consciousness of differences, no trace of complexes.