Thursday, May 15, 2014

Kind Words

Christopher and His Kind is a largely forgettable movie, without much profound to offer. And perhaps it's an encouraging sign of the times that this is the case.

The movie is based on the same-titled 1976 autobiography of Christopher Isherwood, an English novelist. The book made waves in its time for its candor. Isherwood had written several novels inspired by the time he lived in Berlin in the years leading up to World War II, but in doing so he had completely concealed an important detail: he was a gay man. The autobiography revisited that period of his life and exposed the whole truth as a duty, he felt, to "his kind." The book thus became important in the gay liberation movement.

We're still a long way from achieving equality, particularly if you look at the state of the global stage. But pollsters and such will also point out that the needle has never in history moved faster on a social issue than it has on the issue of gay rights, and there's truth in that as well. Things have moved fast enough that this story, except when considered in its full historical context, just doesn't seem that special.

As a movie, a piece of entertainment, it probably doesn't help that its largely about Nazi Germany. A number of profound and moving films have been made about the time and subject, and this movie doesn't do much to try to access those emotions. Christopher Isherwood (the character) does find love in Germany, but the movie doesn't portray that love more convincingly than any of the several surface relationships he has in the first act. He does struggle to try to get his lover out of the country, but comparatively little time is spent on this. The movie does spend some time depicting the threat gays and lesbians were under from the Third Reich, but this too is a somewhat surface-only treatment that simply feels like it "doesn't rate" next to the other atrocities of the Holocaust (in reality, or even on film).

So what's left? Well, some interesting performances at least. This film was made by the BBC Studios, and stars Matt Smith, on hiatus between two seasons of Doctor Who. In a way, this too says something about the moving of the needle on gay rights. In interviews, the director spoke some about demands by the BBC on just how much nudity and sex he could show involving "the Doctor." And yet, the BBC still ultimately greenlit the film. With the livelihood of a 50-year franchise possibly to be affected, here's the Doctor, playing gay. In fact, Smith's persona in this film is actually not all that radically different from his characterization of the Doctor. And it's really no big thing. If anything, two of Smith's co-stars, Toby Jones and Imogen Poots, deliver more nuanced and affecting performances.

This is a true story at its core, and that story is an interesting one. But I think perhaps that's more reason to read the original autobiography than to see this film. I'd rate Christopher and His Kind a C-

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