selenak: (Brian 1963 by Naraht)
[personal profile] selenak
This tv movie was shown on BBC2 as part of the BBC's "Queer Britannia" season, to honor the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offenses Act (which ended sex between two consenting male adults being regarded as a crime). Directed by Fergus O'Brien, it's a docudrama, with the fictionalized scenes based on the book of the same title by Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to testify before the Wolfenden Comittee in 1955. (The Wolfenden Report was key to the eventual Sexual Offenses Act.) In between Wildeblood's story - he's played by Daniel Mays, whom I've previously seen mostly in villain roles (for example in "Ashes to Ashes", and who is great in this utterly different role), we get interviews with men in their late 60s up men in their 90s who describe what it had been like for them to grow up and live with both the law, society and your own social conditioning being against you. Both drama and interviews are incredibly moving, and compliment each other, especially since the film refuses to give Wildeblood an ahistorical "victory" moment where, say, he's reunited with his boyfriend, or one of his tormentors apologizes. Instead, the victory is in the lives of these men who've all been through hell but lived to see another age, still not ideal, but one where they can be with the partners of their choices.

If this were a conventional film production, Wildeblood would be played as the out and proud, rebellious type, and without his own biases. Instead, as we meet him in 1952 when he starts to very nervously looking for company in London pubs and bars, he's very shy, still in the grip of self loathing, and needs till the climactic scene with a prison doctor (played by Mark Gatiss at his malevolent best) to vocalize that it's not him who is wrong and needs to change, it's the law. The film sells you on his falling quickly in love with the RAF sergeant Eddie McNally (Richard Gadd), whom he sees as having the confidence and bravery he believes himself to lack (as it turns out, he's wrong there), and before you can say Mary Renault Peter is talking about the ideal of lovers with complimentary traits and the Greek ideal, but this raphsodizing (when talking to his equally gay friend Edward, Lord Montagu) also includes his acknowledgment that Eddie is "a bit dim", due to his lack of education. The other thing Peter shares with a Mary Renault hero is disdain (mixed with some horror) of the more flamboyant homosexuals often referred to as "queens" or "pansies". (I half expected him to say at one point "ours is a verticular community, and you have no idea how low it goes".) In fact, the movie chooses to end its Peter Wildeblood section not with one of many of the quietly heroic scenes Peter has through the film (as when he refuses to testify against his friend Montagu, in contrast to Eddie who testifies against Peter in exchange for immunity), and not, which it could have done, with a note of acceptance (one of the interviewed old men narrates how when Peter Wildeblood got out of prison he was welcomed by the people in the neighborhood his flat was located at, with signs saying "welcome back" instead of the feared vilification), but with Peter at his worst, voicing condemnation of the flamboyant gays he doesn't want to be mixed up with to the Wolfenden Comittee, while the movie cross cuts to one such man who's been nothing but friendly and nice throughout the film, getting beaten up by the sailor he tried to pick up, which btw is as ruthlessly efficient a way for a narrative to depict prejudice on the part of its hero without endorsing said prejudice that I can think of.

And yet, despite this, Daniel-Mays-played Peter Wildeblood comes across as understandable and very sympathetic, not least because of all the established context; this is a man who's been bullied from childhood onwards and who had it drummed into him that his desires make him evil. Finding happiness briefly with Eddie already feels like a triumph against such conditioning, and then it's taken away, with Peter's private love letters read out in court, and Daniel Mays' face when that happens... And as I said, the big climactic moment isn't the testimony in front of the comittee, that's the aftermath, it's Peter, still in prison, hearing the various methods of "aversion therapy" he could undergo to "cure" his homosexuality, and deciding not only to reject these but the law that condemns him in the first place.

The various dark time veterans interviewed in the docu scenes were presumably selected to represent very different personalities, and also different experiences, and this comes across really well. One interviewee confesses he found living illegally somewhat thrilling while for another it was awful, there's one who was in fact a nurse in prison who had to administer "aversion therapy" (read: torture via electric shocks or vomit-inducing chemicals) and one who mischieviously ends his part of the docu section by saying he had an early info on the conclusions of the Wolfenden Comittee because he was sleeping with the son of Lord Wolfenden at the time, there are the two men who were the first British citizens to enter a civil partnership once that became legal, and so forth. And as I said: their survival is the "triumph" of the movie.

In conclusion: excellent film, watch it if you can.


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