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
of 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.
|© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.