Reviewed in April 1999
Director: Marek Kanievska. Cast: Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Michael Jenn, Cary Elwes, Tristan Oliver, Robert Addie, Rupert Wainwright, Anna Massey. Screenplay: Julian Mitchell (based on his play).
The film version of Julian Mitchell's Another Country is one of those sad affairs that commits exactly the sorts of errors that the filmmakers pretend to indict in wider society. The plot takes place in the 1930s at a strict, upper-crust British boys school where the students gauge their ascent through the grade levels against their growing entitlement to order around the younger boys. Most of the students find this hierarchy of power a thrilling sort of game, and even the pre-pubescents who are forced to run around polishing gewgaws, delivering wake-up calls, and shining shoes for their superiors chirp happily along amidst their own dreams of future authority.
The ostensible reason why Guy Bennett and Tommy Judd are meant to capture our interest is that both boys, for reasons the other upperclassmen cannot share or understand, refuse to get caught up in the furor over communal power. Guy, played by a young Rupert Everett, wants more than he'll admit to earn a position of distinction within the hierarchy, but two other obsessionsthe sardonic subversion of authority and the appreciation of his schoolmates' slender, barely pubescent bodiestypically relegate his social ambitions to a mental back burner. Tommy (Colin Firth, later of Valmont and The English Patient) doesn't seem to have a mental back burner. He spends his days poring through Marx and venting his frustrations with the hegemonic, class-driven structures of both British society and its mirror image within the school.
The idea of Tommy is more important to Another Country than Tommy is himself; the story essentially belongs to Guy, with his more agitated friend hauled back onto center stage whenever the filmmakers want to "say something" about global politicals or social consciousness. The heart of the narrative has to do with Guy's growing, unconcealed affection for James Harcourt (Cary Elwes), a younger blond student who glows under Guy's admiring gazes but is easily cowed by school policy, including its strict deploration of the unspoken crime of homosexuality. Another Country wants to demonstrate that strict injunctions on both the tacit and formal levels against free sexual development and identification can warp individual psyches and bring peril to the very communities the codes were meant to protect. From a frame story set many decades in the futureand featuring the 25-year-old Everett playing a man in his seventies!we know that Guy eventually became a spy for the Russians against his British homeland. Given that this movie was made in 1984, at the height of Thatcherite politics and Cold War anti-communism, it is retrospectively disappointing, if not terribly surprising, to see that working for the Reds is the most poignant, threatening fate the filmmakers can envision for a young lad who merely wants the freedom to love according to his desires. (If the movie were made today, Old Guy would probably be cooperating with a nuke-wielding rebel faction of Muslims, or else be sending computer viruses into innocent Limey homes.)
It is astonishing the way the film makes no effort to bridge in terms of story or even narration how the disillusioned adolescent became a notorious secret-trader. Worse, it is not just Guy's resentment against a homeland that wouldn't tolerate him but what he describes as a unique, gay-related ability to live under false pretenses that makes him prime spy material. This is exactly the sort of hysterical hate-rhetoric that the power-mongers at the boarding school would be spreading, but instead the movie (I assume unwittingly) takes up their charge: beware of a gay man scorned, because boy does he know how to lie! There are other problems. The movie's obvious anxiety related to All Things Russian stands uneasily against the fact that Tommy Judd, copy of Das Kapital ever in hand, remains the closest thing the movie has to an ethical yard-stick, a standard of judgment; it is his acceptance of Guy that climactically cues us that we, too, are to find a place in our hearts for him. Are we to assume that Tommy also amounted to "no good," or that his Marxism proved to be a "phase," in the same way Guy initially passed his desires off as an instance of adolescent confusion? Like Kiss of the Spider Woman, Another Country builds deliberately to the point where the homosexual and the political radical awaken to each other's concepts of difference, but neither story knows quite what to do with these characters once they have been enlightened. To judge from these two stories, the options for the emancipated liberal seem to be early death, prolonged criminality, retreat into fantasy, or disappearance from the face of the earth.
At least Kiss of the Spider Woman shows style and substance for the two hours leading up to its final cop-out. You can't fault a BBC production like Another Country for its rudimentary visuals, but you can easily castigate a story that means to champion sexual diversity but refuses to say or show anything that discloses exactly what relationship develops between Guy and James. The risk in making that kind of attack is that the critic always sounds as though he or she will not be satisfied with anything less than an unblanching scene of sexual activityand, to be frank, I do think the cinema has got, at some point or another, to think of a way to put real gay lives and gay loves into unbashful visual terms. The more immediate point, though, is that Another Country fixates on everything Guy loses and everything he gives up but won't do him the favor of showing what exactly he is risking everything for.
The actors all turn in credible performances, and the claustrophic elitism of the school itself comes across more convincingly than in American pablum like Scent of a Woman. I am even ready to admit that Another Country may have looked bold and challenging at a cultural moment in which Boy George was the only gay man anywhere in public sight. It's hard, though, to say what is more dispiritinga picture with no ideas or one with an idea that it cannot bear to utter, a range of sympathies to which it will not actually admit. In this kind of story, actors are straitjacketed. There is nothing to be done when their script and their director shy away from the salient themes of their own creation. C
Cannes Film Festival: Best Artistic Contribution (Peter Biziou, cinematographer)