When Martin Sherman's play Bent opened in London in 1979 (and on
     Broadway the following year), it created a stir as the first mainstream piece
     to address the persecution of homosexuals under the Nazi Regime. Although
     it received a mixed reception from critics, audiences were moved by the story
     and the performances of Ian McKellen in London and Richard Gere in New York.
     Almost immediately, there was talk of a film version with various star names
     bandied about. After nearly twenty years,
Bent has finally made it to the big

             Acclaimed stage director Sean Mathias was selected to direct in part for
     his exceptional ability to create stylized visuals. Some audience members,
     conditioned by such Holocaust films as
Sophie's Choice and especially
Schindler's List may find off-putting the Berlin and the concentration camps
     imagined by Mathias and production designer Stephen Brimson Lewis.
     While not a literal recreation, the film's look is a major factor in its success.
     The decadent German nightclub is not the claustrophobic, smoky one
Cabaret but an expansive open-aired place overseen by a drag queen
     on a trapeze. The hero's apartment is at once theatrical yet inviting. The
     concentration camp also is unlike any seen on screen before, looking like
     an abandoned industrial park. In adapting his play, Sherman has managed
     to open up the action in the first half, but falters with the second part.
             Like the play, the film is neatly (almost too neatly) divided in half.
     The first deals with the hedonistic Max and Rudy, a dancer with whom he
     lives. Max is presented as a selfish and somewhat unlikable character. Once
     captured by the Nazis, the train ride to Dachau alters him and the second
     part focuses on his growing relationship with fellow prisoner Horst. On
     stage, the second act was claustrophobic and powerfully moving; on screen
     there is sense of something missing.

             What makes the film are the superb performances. In the difficult role
     of Max, the dashingly handsome Clive Owen successfully negotiates the
     character's development from an apolitical pleasure-seeker to a caring
     individual. Owen is particularly effective in a scene on the train to Dachau
     where he first must deny knowing his lover Rudy and then participate in
     Rudy's death. Lothaire Bluteau as Horst has the more difficult role,
     partly because the audience knows so little about the character. Yet the
     actor uses his natural charm and charisma to draw the viewer in.
     Bluteau and Owen work well together with their relationship developing
     in a believable manner. In smaller roles, Ian McKellen is outstanding
     as Max's gay uncle who tries to persuade his nephew to flee before it's
     too late and Mick Jagger is effective as a mercenary drag queen.
     (Jagger even gets to introduce a Dietrich-like ballad, "Streets of Berlin".)
     Mathias has also cast a number of rising British actors in what amount
     to cameo roles. Blink and you might miss Jude Law, Rachel Weisz and
     Sadie Frost, while Rupert Graves cuts a menacing figure as a Nazi officer.

             Bent is not a film for everyone. In fact, it has received an NC-17 rating
     ostensibly for a brief orgy scene that is more chaste than scenes in
Boogie Nights. Those who seek out this film, however, will be challenged
     by its subject matter and rewarded by its execution.

                                    Rating:                 B
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.