Sexuality emerging from shame

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Wednesday June 27, 2018
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The adage "The more things change, the more they stay the same" could be the subtext of the glorious new English film "Man in an Orange Shirt," which premiered at Frameline 42, was originally shown on BBC Two last year, broadcast on PBS' Masterpiece Theatre (and streamable for free through July 1) and is now available on DVD. It was written by the gay English novelist Patrick Gale to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalized homosexuality in Britain. Gale based his screenplay partially on his own family drama of his mother burning discovered love letters his father had received from another man. This heart-rending tale consists of two love stories, separated by 60 years, revealing how fraught sexual identity can be regardless of social progress.

The film begins during WWII in Italy when British Captain Michael Berryman (dreamy actor-model Oliver Jackson-Cohen) saves the life of the wounded Captain Thomas March (James McArdle), an official war artist. Michael realizes that he had gone to school with Thomas. He is engaged to his childhood sweetheart Flora (Joanna Vanderham), but while visiting Thomas in the hospital during his recuperation realizes he is attracted to him. In a great seduction line, the injured Thomas, while trying to pee, says to Michael, "It's bloody embarrassing, but I can't button my fly single-handedly," which leads to them kissing. Thomas asks Michael to look him up after the war is over. Michael locates Thomas in London, and they spend a passionate weekend together at Michael's rundown country cottage. Thomas sketches Michael for a painting that will become "Man in an Orange Shirt." Thomas wants them to be together, despite the fact that homosexuality in England was then illegal. Michael replies, "You didn't think we could set up home together like man and wife?" Instead, Michael invites Thomas to be his best man at his wedding to Flora. He reluctantly complies.

Michael's marriage to Flora is turbulent, and she finds letters Thomas wrote to him during the war revealing their love for each other. She opts to stay married, in a "Don't ask, don't tell" relationship. Thomas is caught cottaging in a public lavatory, and is sent to prison for a year. There is one last meeting with Michael once Thomas is released.

The second hour flash-forwards to today. Michael and Thomas have died. Flora (now played by Vanessa Redgrave) rents out her basement to her grandson Adam (enticing Julian Morris), whom she raised. He's now a veterinarian and a constant user of a gay hookup app, "Gruff." At work he meets Steve (David Gyasi), an architect with a dying cat. Steve is in an open relationship with another man, but longs for something more stable. Flora has given Michael's old country cottage to Adam, who asks Steve to help him restore it. They are attracted to each other, but Adam is ashamed about being gay, not out to Flora, and is a commitment-phobe. Can Adam and Steve come together despite their differences?

The standout performer is the incandescent Vanessa Redgrave, now 81. Her character Flora is the link between the two stories, and she finds sex between two men disgusting. Undoubtedly drawing from her own personal experiences of having a bisexual father (actor Michael Redgrave) and having been married briefly to the bisexual director Tony Richardson ("Tom Jones"), Redgrave is able to convey both repression and liberation of her feelings, often in the same glance. We feel empathy for her plight and her denial, laughing at her comment, "I can't turn liberal overnight."

The film is really about the internalization of shame and self-loathing, showing how these emotions harm not only gay lives but also the straight people they unwittingly victimize. Gale wants to show that there are still LGBTQ people ashamed of who they are, who hide behind hookup apps, not revealing their faces and asking for discretion. Legal equality does not mean social equality. The film argues that everyone is happier when all can be who they are without denial.