Beautiful Thing
Reviewed in September 1999
Director: Hettie MacDonald. Cast: Glen Berry, Linda Henry, Scott Neal, Tameka Empson, Ben Daniels. Screenplay: Jonathan Harvey (based on his play).

Photo © 1996 Sony Pictures Classics/Channel 4 Films
Image reproduced from Movie Screenshots
Beautiful Thing, a low-key, Channel Four-produced British drama about two gay teens coming out and falling in love, is as amiable and entertaining as recent, more glittery stories of gay romance like Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss, but Hettie MacDonald's film also has an emotional restraint and a delicate sensibility that life Beautiful Thing to a higher plane than other films with superficial similarities. Most of the action takes place in three consecutive units in a working-class British apartment complex. The middle of the three is occupied by Sandra (Linda Henry), an aspiring pub-manager with a rascally sense of humor, and her son Jamie (Glen Berry), a quiet type, sensitive to his inchoate feelings of difference, who runs home to avoid a gym class with male students who toss Jamie's bags over a fence and toss invective in his face. The relationship between Sandra and Jamie provides the film with its bedrock of story and of emotion, since the whole picture borrows equally from Sandra's willful, optimistic energy and Jamie's gentle melancholy.

On one side of Sandra and Jamie's flat lives Leah (Tameka Empson), a loud-mouthed teenager who covers the black skin of her face with cold cream and sings Mama Cass tunes at full blast. We first see her in an early scene as she stands on the ledge outside her apartment and looks at an impressively distinct rainbow as it cascades over the urban-industrial Thameshead landscape. On the opposite side of Sandra and Jamie are a family of three men, a violent, temperamental father and his two sons: Trevor, a meticulously neat and petulant twenty-something, and Ste (Scott Neal), a classmate of Jamie's who tries hard to please his father and brother to avoid their collective physical and verbal abuse. Sandra occasionally offers Ste (short for Stephen) the chance to sleep in her apartment and avoid the rages of his own family, but accommodations are tight enough in these flats that Ste has to share Jamie's bed, tip-to-toe, so that the boys' heads are at opposite ends of the bed.

Jonathan Harvey's script, derived from his own play, occasionally betrays its stage origins through the concentrated setting and through felicitous contrivances like the bed-sharing. Uniquely among play-to-film adaptations, however, Beautiful Thing does not feel compressed into its three-flat boundaries, mostly because the four principal actors each contribute such loose, humane, and immensely likeable performances. God bless Brenda Blethyn and her spitfire comic flair with working-class British mums, but Linda Henry makes you grateful that Sandra is not quite so frantic or gawdy as Blethyn's creations. Sandra is believable as a barmaid, as a mother, and as a future businesswoman, and most of all, neither her semi-friendly sniping with Leah—they call each other "slags," Britspeak for easy women—nor her generous gestures toward Ste defy credibility. The actress does not work too hard for her laughs or her pathos, instead investing Sandra with a flexible emotional soul that reaches amply all the way from anger to kittenishness.

Berry and Neal also hold back from sentimental possibilities within the script, and construct most of their performances through the bashful ways they look at one another. Most gay male comedies of late have thrown an impish but neurotic cute guy into frustrated, worshipful orbit around a bona fide hunk whose own sexual orientation is a matter of some question. Beautiful Thing relieves itself of the need to trade in easily on the looks of its stars, and both young actors have pleasant but off-kilter faces to match the sweet awkwardness of their dispositions. By no accident have the filmmakers put Jamie in the apartment between Leah and Ste, since he represents a certain midpoint between the girl's loud, often hilarious boisterousness and Ste's pinched, anxious attempts to stay out of trouble. Jamie's comfort with himself is perfectly rendered in a scene where he is brave enough to go to a magazine counter and acquire an issue of Gay Times but too skittish to let himself be seen by the counter-employee; he hurries out of the store with the magazine under his shirt.

Beautiful Thing gracefully affords Ste more comfort in his life while drawing Leah slightly back from her most extravagant acting-out, but there is no moralizing or judgment in MacDonald's film, unless you count stakes through the heart of child abuse or homophobia as "moralizing"; I don't. The narrative of the picture grows a little fuzzy on exactly how far Jamie and Ste take their budding relationship, or on a seemingly crucial question of whether Ste's family has intuited his sexual orientation. At the same time, the film opts for discretion over more obvious thrills, and it shows a certain chutzpah in opening out its conclusion into a perfect, fablic finale, rather than an ordinary tying-up of plot strings. No one knows quite what will happen with Jamie and Ste's relationship as the film ends, but that after all seems appropriate—who could, after all, predict with any reliability the fate of two teenage boys in love with urban realities all around them and a whole lifetime stretched out ahead? I appreciated Beautiful Thing's precise glimpses into the lives of these people, but I also valued how MacDonald and her colleauges knew when to let their story go. Beautiful Thing earns its emotional payoffs just as soundly as it earns its title. The film is a tender, knowing, and unimpeachably lovely piece of work. B+


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