The Mostly British Film Festival, unspooling February 16–23 at the Vogue Theater, 3290 Sacramento Street, in San Francisco, showcases a number of films by gay directors, starring out actors, and/or featuring queer characters.
One of the highlights of this year’s program is Handsome Devil, a sure-fire crowd pleaser about two boarding school roommates, the wiry, red-headed Ned (Fionn O’Shea) and the athletic Conor (Nicholas Galitzine). Ned is a music-loving outsider, marked as a “fag” by Weasel (Ruairi O’Connor), the school bully. In contrast, Conor is a star rugby player and a hero at the school that treats the sport like a religion. The roommates are odd-couple opposites, but they start to bond over music, especially when their English teacher, Dan (out actor Andrew Scott), asks them to perform a duet for a local talent show. Although there is some palpable sexual tension between the boys during a practice session, the magic of Handsome Devil lies in the natural way the boys’ relationship develops and grows. They come to learn more about each other—and about themselves— as their friendship is tested by outside forces.
If the film puts a not-exactly unexpected twist on the familiar coming out/coming-of-age story, it nevertheless presents gratifying messages about pride, shame, and tolerance with humor and grace. There are also some nice, sensitive moments, as when Dan has a heart-to-heart with Conor.
The actors are all engaging, and the film’s soundtrack is terrific. It’s also hard not to feel a swell of emotion as Rufus Wainwright sings “Go or Go Ahead” during the film’s climactic scenes. Handsome Devil will leave viewers smiling from ear to ear.
A handsomely mounted period piece screening at the festival is A Quiet Passion, by gay filmmaker Terence Davies. This gorgeously lit biopic stars out actor Cynthia Nixon as poet Emily Dickinson, and reams of the poet’s verse is spoken throughout this talky drama.
First seen at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where she rebels against religion, Dickinson returns home, to Amherst, where she tells her father (Keith Carradine) that she wants to write (and publish) poetry. These are her initial expressions of independence, and throughout A Quiet Passion, Dickinson, along with her tart-tongued friend Vryling Buffam (a scene-stealing Catherine Bailey), take pains to assert themselves as they consider social mores and issues of love and marriage, religion and death, truth and experience.
Davies, who penned the screenplay, concentrates on episodic mini-dramas, such as Emily’s arguments with her brother Austin (Duncan Duff) over his extramarital affair, or her prolonged ill health. Despite the filmmaker’s noble efforts, however, A Quiet Passion is a portrait that is more stuffy than vibrant, and Nixon is rather starchy as the poetess.
Pawno is a sweet and sour Australian entry that showcases the lives of a dozen characters. Danny (writer Damian Hill) works for Les (John Brumpton) in his pawnshop in the town of Footscray. Les is no-nonsense, while Danny, who has a secret crush on Kate (Maeve Dermody), is more of a dreamer. They entertain—and are entertained by—the various denizens who enter the shop, from Tony (John Orcsik), a man with a naughty little secret, to Jennifer (Kerry Armstrong), a woman whose son has run away. One of the more touching moments has Les helping out Paige (Daniel Frederiksen), a transsexual who is harassed on the street and needs a loan. While most of the supporting characters have only one or two scenes, Frederiksen and Armstrong make their brief moments poignant.
Pawno doesn’t offer much in the way of dramatic tension, but there is a nice camaraderie between the characters, from Danny and Les in the pawnshop to Kate and her bookstore colleague, Holly (Naomi Rukavina), and Carlo (Malcolm Kennard) and Pauly (Mark Coles Smith), who are friends that hang out on the streets of Footscray.
A modest slice-of-life story, Pawno is hardly groundbreaking, but it is a passable time filler.
Also of queer interest are three older films screening at the festival. Underground, a recently restored 1929 silent feature, is the sophomore effort by gay filmmaker Anthony Asquith. The story, which Asquith also wrote, concerns Bill (Brian Aherne), a uniformed attendant in the London tube and Bert (Cyral McLaglen), a power station worker, who are both attracted to Nell (Elissa Landi). Melodrama, as they say, ensues.
Sidney Lumet’s sparking 1974 adaption of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express features an all-star cast, including the late bisexual actor Anthony Perkins and the late gay John Gielgud as two of the suspects interrogated by Hercule Poirot (a fantastic, and Oscar-nominated Albert Finney). The film’s editor, Anne V. Coates, is being honored at the festival.
Lastly, Mona Lisa, the 1986 Neil Jordan film, gets a spotlight during the festival’s “Film Noir” night. The late Bob Hoskins gave a career-defining (Cannes-winning, Oscar-nominated) performance here as an ex-con who falls in love with the high-class call girl (Cathy Tyson) he drives around London. It is almost a spoiler to reveal the film has a queer twist.
© 2017 Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer