As queer people ー specifically, gay men ー we are used to relationships not lasting forever. People get scared ー of their own romantic and sexual impulses, of how they feel about their identity ー and they run away. Encounters are often hidden: we meet at night, in dark corners, away from prying eyes. Sometimes the light of day eclipses what went on in the dark, and we are left wondering if our desperate minds fabricated the whole thing. And then the night begins again, and he comes back, and we know that, even if just for tonight, it’s real.
I’m talking about today: 2020, when the gays actually have some rights. I can’t even begin to imagine what being gay (and inescapably so, at that) must have been like in the 1930s. A young and sickeningly handsome Rupert Everett, in his first major film role, attempts to show us.
Quite frankly, the gay relationship storyline forms a relatively small part of the action of this film. Another Country (Marek Kanievska, 1984) tells the story of Guy Bennett (Rupert Everett) and how life brought him to Russia and to communism.
Biggest Gay Mood: being a communist
We are shown Bennett as an older man in an eerie intro which sets an inaccurately sinister tone. Though this framing seems bizarre and somewhat unnecessary, the bulk of the film is thankfully better placed. In an extended flashback, we meet Bennett’s best friend Tommy Judd (Colin Firth) and the two of them navigate their way through the ranks of a gut-wrenchingly posh Eton-style private school. They are both outsiders: Judd because he’s a Marxist, and Bennett because he’s gay and unashamed.
The boys at the school have a specific and immutable ranking system which dictates all aspects of life there. The main plotline revolves around this system and everyone’s struggle to manipulate it to their benefit. Bennett wants to become a ‘God’ ー that is, one of the school’s top prefects ー but house captain Fowler schemes to put Bennett’s sexuality in the way of success.
Another Country is successful in exposing the ridiculousness of high English society of the 20th Century: the suits, the routines, the hierarchy, the marching, the calling each other by their last names, the fucking accents; it’s a lot. And yet, at the same time, the buildings and the scenery are absurdly and grotesquely visually beautiful.
In practical terms, maintaining status in such a world is important for career prospects. But if you take a step back ー as we are able to do as modern viewers ー you realise that absolutely none of it actually means anything. At all. And, as we know from the first five minutes of the film when we learn he’s a Russian spy, Bennett eventually realised this for himself.
Top Tip: when you’re laughing at the ridiculousness of everything, try not to remember that nearly half of Britain’s Prime Ministers (26/55) went to the two very schools (Eton and Winchester) upon which the one in the film is modelled.
(Seriously, it’s better not to think about it.)
Now we return to my introductory paragraph, because juxtaposed against this grotesque superficiality we find what’s real: the relationships they form.
All relationships are nourished more authentically either at nighttime, in private, or both. Judd stays up later than he should so he can read up on Marxism, and Bennett passes him in the reading room to go on midnight walks. This room becomes somewhat of a safe space for the two of them during the daytime too, as Judd continues to read and Bennett gazes yearningly through the window at the latest boy he’s fallen in love with. Soon, Bennett plucks up the courage to actually ask someone out (very discreetly, of course, via a note). He and this boy, James Harcourt, begin a kind of romantic relationship.
You won’t be surprised to hear that their scenes together are a particular highlight for me. Take a look at the blog title if you’re at all confused as to why.
Guy and James
They start by sneaking out and going on a discreet date to an expensive restaurant, here finally revealing their first names to one another, which symbolises a heightened sense of intimacy. After this, they meet at night by the river.
The moonlight on Rupert Everett’s bone structure would be enough of a reason to love these scenes, quite honestly. But, don’t worry, I have plenty more.
At their first waterside meeting, James approaches Guy with a tentative run. He crosses the bridge ー perhaps overcoming a personal barrier ー and his path leads him around in a kind of spiral as he moves gradually closer to Guy. Finally, stepping towards Guy, James comes into the light, revealing himself to Guy and to us. As he places his head deftly onto his lover’s shoulder, they remain still in their rowing boat floating peacefully on the water. However, this calm tableau is not held for very long; their moments together are, indeed, fleeting.
We return to a similar scene a short ten minutes later in the film ー it could even be the same night ー and their conversation moves to a deeper honesty. As they sit there in the lamplight on a night of otherwise complete darkness, it is enough for them to simply hold one another. The image appears timeless, though James crudely reminds us that “it’ll be getting light soon”; he has to, as they cannot be together in the daytime. When James rises to get up, Guy pulls him softly back in; moving as if to kiss his forehead, but then just easing his head back, stroking his hair and delaying the inevitability of this meeting’s end. A shot of rippling water then fades into a church choir, reminding us of the unavoidable passing of time and a return to the school system, to ‘normality’.
Britney Line Time: “If I said my heart was beating loud // If we could escape the crowd somehow…”
We never see Guy and James kiss, and yet it is infinitely romantic. Perhaps it would have been more so if we had more scenes showing the couple together, but we are never to know. I would be hesitant to praise the artful fleetingness of their encounters without condemning the attitudes that created it ー attitudes which persisted past the 30s, past the 80s and through to today.
It is the disparity between this very real relationship (yet briefly shown) and the very fake society (yet with lifelong prospects) which drives home the central plot motivation, Bennett’s character arc and the film’s overarching social commentary. Though the everyday worries of all the characters ー including Bennett himself ー are trivial to modern eyes and frankly quite boring to watch, that is kind of the point.
Another Country makes for bleak and superficial viewing. I had to sit with it for a little while in order to understand what the film is really about. At times, the mundanity is a little much, especially for a 2020 viewing, where we are so used to a heightened level of on-screen interest.
Even so, morcels of hope, of friendship, of romance, of solidarity are enough to carry you through the abyss. Moments of yearning, during which the boys can peek through the darkness and glimpse a better life, are scarce; but their scarcity only makes them that much more stunning.
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