by Sam Juliano
There is a fresh spontaneity present throughout the gay-themed romance Beautiful Thing that leaves the viewer fully exhilarated. There is a certain sense of triumph when the two lovers are fully outed (one recalls many similarities to the Swedish lesbian drama Show Me Love – directed by Lukas Moodyson – that opened two years later) and have finally built up support and acceptance among those who were originally hostile to such a proposition. To be sure, the unforgettable final scene of the British film, when the two teenagers lovingly slow-dance in the courtyard of their council flats to Mama Cass Elliot’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me” as the one boy’s feisty mom defiantly cavorts alongside them, provokes as much shock as bliss among the on-lookers. But the fact that some have accepted what was once unconscionable in these working class, housing project environs provides the film with its own silver lining, while major changes lie on the horizon.
Beautiful Thing stands apart from other gay romances because it depicts the budding relationship as an outgrowth of the same yearnings that define heterosexual love. There are the usual hurdles to negotiate, and guilt, embarrassment and self-loathing are all experienced before true love conquers all. Hattie McDonald, directing an intelligent script written by Jonathan Harvey from his long-running play demonstrates remarkable emotional restraint in documenting how two teenage boys who reside next door to each other in a South East London housing project come face to face with their emerging homosexuality. In fact the film essentially plays out largely in three connecting apartments which house the characters who display their various difficulties in coping with their siblings, acceptance in school and dysfunctional self-identity.
The working-class realism on display recalls the kitchen sink drama of the 60’s, while the underlying dissatisfaction and angst draws a parallel with the works of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. But there is a Georgy Girl- like Cinderella element in the film that leads up to a happy ending that is not only well-earned but believable in the context of the story arc’s development. Beautiful Thing is essential a story of young love, and the obstacles that are encountered in its path to full maturation. Jamie is a shy teenager who lives with his single mother Sandra, a spunky and absorbed bartender, whose main focus is run her own pub. The latest in her string of lovers is a decent if aimless hippy-like painter named Tony, who clearly idolizes his pants-wearing girlfriend. Jamie is adverse to sports and is smitten with classic movies that he watches on the telly. The film appears to have toned-down the play’s more prevalent awareness of the lad’s bullying at school for his indifference to masculine pursuits, though obscene graffiti written in his notebook that is later discovered by his ever-inquisitive mum confirms his ill-regard.
There are far more combative living conditions next door where the quiet and comparatively introverted “Ste” (short for Stephen) endures regular beatings by his pop, a drunken ex-boxer with a stuck-up demeanor, and hostility from his drug-dealing older brother. After he is badly beaten by the brother one night, Sandra takes pity on him and grants him refuge in her own apartment. Sleeping conditions are constricted, but on the second night they shared abed, and mutual attraction reaches the point where Jamie kisses Ste. Jamie is initially revolted when he comes to terms with what transpired and he avoids his partner for days. Meanwhile, Jamie has has a far easier times accepting his sexuality and proceeds to shoplift a Gay Times from a news shop. He later confronts Ste at a party, but is rejected.
A spirited young 16 year-old black woman, Leah, who is a school dropout and sometime drug taker, has a fixation on the music of Mama Cass Ellliot, the celebrated lead singer of the 60’s group ‘The Mamas and the Papas, who in her final years launched a solo career. Leah plays her mother’s records of the singer, and a number of the songs serve as a foundation for the film’s spirit and pride. Cass Elliott is one of her favorite topics to discuss, and at one point she talks about the perceived circumstances that caused her death – that she had choked on a ham sandwich. Leah is kooky and impertinent (she favors covering her face with cold cream) and she soon enough finds herself in trouble with Sandra, who physically assaults her for her gossipy indiscretions. Leah, who by then had known – but kept quiet about- the gay relationship, then commenced to spill the beans in subsequent remarks.
The boys eventually reconcile, after Ste hands Jamie a gift of a clothing item, and the boys visit a gay bar and are humorously acknowledged by a transsexual comic. Shortly thereafter the boys fully let go of their inhibitions as they dash into the woods wildly kissing and embracing each other to the tune of Cass Ellit’s inspiring lyrical ballad “Make Your Own Kind of Music.” This climactic visual montage, the film’s most purely cinematic sequence, provides the most heart-stopping moment in the work, and finally removes any lingering self-doubts of the protagonist’s genuine mutual affection.
By this time, there is some rapprochement when Sandy openly confronts Jamie with the proof of his homosexuality (she earlier had followed the boys in a trailing car and saw them enter the gay bar and had read the homophobic graffiti in the school books) but after two scenes when both boy break down in turn, she becomes militarist supporter. Her rebellious dance in the courtyard asserts full acceptance in celebratory mode. The film is more vague when it comes to presenting evidence of how Ste’s father and brother might react to news of his sexual orientation, but it takes little imagination to figure out how such a revelation might play out.
The film’s strongest suit -and in fact the one that will invariably always make or break a film of this sort- are the performances. Linda Henry turns in a powerhouse performance as the resilient Sandra Gangel, a woman with little education, but exceedingly head-strong and streetwise, and masking a deep humanity. Henry is another in a line of working-class British moms, that were perfected by Leigh stalwart Brenda Blethyn, though their is less comic flair than her contemporary projected, and more introspection. Henry did however own the film’s funniest line, when she tells her son that there is a place in the world where gay people can live without fear of recrimination: “It’s an island in the Mediterranean called Lesbian.” Glen Barry and Scott Neal as Jamie and Scott play down the sentimental possibilities of interpretation in the script, and turn-in sensitive and honest performances that beautifully succeed in suggesting the angst and confusion that would follow self-discover of this kind, and the immediate realization of the grief it would bring on. The bashful looks each give the other (Macdonald and the casting directors were wise not to secure actors would male model looks) are refreshingly spontaneous and natural, and accurately project the awkwardness that would accompany budding gay affection. To be sure both Barry and Neal are good-looking enough, but in a less ubiquitous way. Their winning portrayals are never over-the-top and are unceasingly armed with acute verisimilitude. The result generates heartfelt empathy.
Tameka Empson as the loud-mouthed teenager with more than few things on her mind, is largely a disarming and delightful force in the film, and she is utterly charming in the grandstand finale when she and Sandra combine in lending the boys Greek Chorus-style support. Ben Daniels plays the rather hopeless character Tony (Sandra’s current lover), whose affectionate gestures in the end go for naught.
Chris Seager’s cinematography isn’t all that distinctive, but neither is it transcribed in the drab tones and textures one associates with stage adaptations. The color’s are sharp and vibrant and there are a few scenes of fluid movement like the aforementioned one that occurs in the woods. The film’s atmosphere is defined by the Cass Elliot folk ballads with their lilting melodies and lyrics of independent bravado. They fit the theme of the film beautifully, and their inclusion were a stroke of genius by Harvey.
Unlike a number of gay-themed films that get hung up on the morality of child abuse and homophobia -and this film has more than a generous dose of these aspects woven into the script – Beautiful Thing celebrates romance as a landmark event that is shared and cherished equally among heterosexuals and gays. That is the major concern, and the title wonderfully captures the essence. Indeed Harvey confides:
I always thought that if the film got made it would have been shown on Channel Four at half past two on a Sunday morning. I’m glad that Film Four have made it though, because as a movie it’s so much more specific than it was as a play. I think that can mean it’s quite general too, because growing up and falling in love are universal things. Furthermore I was always aware that there was a lack of role models for working class gay people on the telly and on film. The only images I had were things like ‘Another Country’ and ‘Maurice,’ where you had to have a pair of cricket whites to be gay, and even then it was after lights out and a bit kinky. On the flip side of that if you were working class you ended up being kicked out of the house and becoming a rent boy. I just wanted to show something other than that.
At the end of the day Beautiful Thing has to be considered one of the very best films about gay romance ever made. When it ends you want to stand up and cheer.