Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Another pantheon movie - ANOTHER COUNTRY

All problems solved for life. No commies and no queers.In the 1930s, five young men of rank and privilege decided to systematically betray their country and their class by spying for the Soviet Union. What drives men to such actions? Partly it was an entirely admirable reaction against the seemingly inexorable rise of Fascism. Partly it was an insider's view of how brutal life in the class system was - even when you were destined to be top of the pile. But some have made another, psychological, explanation: that for Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, their experience of having to hide their homosexuality in a bigoted society alienated them from the very establishment they were supposed to be members of. Certainly Miranda Carter, in her excellent recent biography of Anthony Blunt, claims that his miserable time at public school, miserable partly because of his homosexuality, helped foster a subversive but also superior attitude toward British society. This potent combination - insecurity and moral superiority - fed into a belief that this chosen elite had the right to be exempt from mere conventional morality for the good of the masses. Well, were they so very different from the colonial dictators they so despised?

Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess were exposed in the 50s and defected to Russia, but Anthony Blunt escaped public exposure until 1979. The fact that a traitor could have ascended so high in British society (Blunt was Director of the prestigious Courtauld Institute as well as being Surveyor of the King's Pictures) was profoundly shocking. The shock prompted a re-consideration of the motives of the Cambridge Spies. Julian Mitchell's play ANOTHER COUNTRY, and the following cinema adaptation, was part of that process.

The movie opens with a seedy old man in a dingy Russian apartment. His true origin is betrayed by the sepia photographs of schoolfriends in Eton dress. An interviewer asks how he could have betrayed his class. He preceeds to relate a story that will show it to have been as despicable as it was delightful. We flash back to Eton in the 1930s. A young schoolboy is caught by a master having homosexual sex: the shame of exposure will lead him to commit suicide. Fearful of the school's reputation, the self-elected elite pupils ("Gods", closely modelled on "Pop") decide to crack down on homosexual activity. Note that it is not the practice they object to so much as exposure. And wrapped around the events are the frantic manoeuvrings surrounding election to the Gods next term.

ANOTHER COUNTRY is essentially about a young homosexual student called Guy becomes disillusioned with these ridiculous and yet deadly serious manoeuvrings. Guy is desperate to become a God, but is also desperate to love another young boy called Harcourt. Love leads him to indiscretion, exposure and exclusion from the fulfilment of his ambition. At such a point, he becomes radicalised and a fellow traveller of his best friend Judd - an intellectually committed Communist.

The radical idea behind ANOTHER COUNTRY is portray the road to betrayal as starting in a very personal, emotional crisis, rather than in a purely intellectual attraction. The other radical idea is to portray the traitor as the victim. In this, director Marek Kanievska is spot on in photographing the classic English boarding school in soft dappled light and to make it look as superficially delightful as we could imagine it to be. He's also fortunate to have the quite shockingly beautiful and youthful Rupert Everett as his leading man. Everett is perfectly cast as Guy - he is mischevious, intelligent, clearly in love, nervous around his lover, and altogether sympathetic. What could be more tragic than seeing him crushed by the juggernaut of the English class system? Guy was being bred to rule the colonies through force - as foreshadowed by the military drills for corps. He was being bred to inflict rule in the real world by playing at Gods at school. And against this inhumanity he rebelled. ANOTHER COUNTRY challenges you to judge him for it.

ANOTHER COUNTRY played Cannes, where DP Peter Biziou won Best Artistic Contribtuion, and Toronto 1984. It was released in the UK that year. It is available on DVD.

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