Monday, March 21, 2011

Christopher and His Kind - A review

Note: I can tell you straight up that Christopher and His Kind is not for everyone. If you are squeamish about seeing naked men (there is a brief glimpse of a penis twice in one scene), men making out and having sex, or if you don’t approve of non-hetro relationships in general this film is not for you.

Christopher and His Kind is a strange film and, to be honest, it wasn’t what I expected. I was expecting a romantic film and a tragedy with high drama and plenty of tear jerking moments, but the film only got me to tear up a couple of times. Instead, it’s a rather calm affair with tension that slowly builds and then sort of dissipates towards the end. While the subject matter is truly dark and tragic, the film tends to imply rather than show the events surrounding the Nazis rise to power and how it affected gay men. Furthermore, I found the character of Christopher Isherwood to be quite dislikable! While capable of true kindness and sensitivity, Christopher is also rather callous, self-centered, and dismissive. In short, it was an accurate portrayal of a real and flawed human being rather than an ideal.

The film starts with Christopher Isherwood (Matt Smith) an old man writing his autobiography, ‘Christopher and His Kind’ that the movie is based off of.  We then travel back in time to 1931 as Christopher is on the train to Berlin with side flashes back to London as Christopher’s mother attempts to guilt trip Christopher into staying in England. Kathleen Isherwood (Lindsay Duncan), wants her son to stay for various reasons including the fact that she wants him to study to be a Doctor (lol) and that during WWI Christopher’s father was killed by Germans. However, Christopher is adamant that he has to go to meet his friend, W.H. Auden (Pip Carter), and so leaves.

This brings me to one of the things that REALLY surprised me. Berlin of 1931 is actually pretty gay friendly! After being hit on in the train to Berlin, Christopher is met by his friend who brings him to the 1931 version of a gay bar.

It’s dark, it’s dirty, it’s very obviously in a basement somewhere, and the look on Christopher’s face tells you he’s never been someplace like this before.

Christopher moves into a boarding house and makes friends with Gerald Hamilton (Toby Jones, the Dreamlord) who lives on the same floor.  To pay the bills while he writes his novels, Christopher starts giving English lessons. (Note: The dolphin clock in this scene and the following scenes is an actual clock lent to the production by Christopher’s still living partner!)  He also starts to befriend his neighbor, the actress Jean Ross (Imogen Poots), and bringing lovers home to his apartment.

Then the shit starts to hit the fan. As Germany moves closer to the decisive election that will bring Hitler and the Nazi party to power, everyone who surrounds Christopher talks about how people need to stand up to the Nazis to stop them. Yet, Christopher doesn’t seem to worry about the future even as Jewish store fronts are being defaced with Star of David graffiti and men are beaten up on the street by Brown Shirts.

Instead, Christopher is more focused on his new relationship with street sweeper Heinz Neddermayer (Douglas Booth).  This leads to a major failing of the film for me. While Christopher and Heinz are supposed to be desperately in love with each other, this relationship is mostly told to us rather than shown. While there are several tender scenes between Christopher and Heinz I was always waiting for more to show why these two were willing to risk their very lives to stay together.

All in all, Christopher and His Kind is a beautiful film with absolutely gorgeous sets and drool worthy costumes. The acting is superb and while I didn’t like the character of Christopher Isherwood as a person Matt Smith does a brilliant job of acting as him. I do wish that they had changed Matt Smith’s hair a bit more for the role though. Matt looks almost exactly like he does as the Doctor so it is a little hard to separate the two characters at first.

If you love period films, films about the gay moment, films about Nazi Germany, or if you just want to see Matt Smith have very hot sex with another man, I would recommend giving Christopher and His Kind a shot! 3 out of 4 stars!

So how does it end? (Spoilers below!)

After witnessing a book burning in which works by prominent gay writers are being burned, Christopher seems to realize that he needs to get going while the going is still good. Convincing Heinz to come with him he returns to London, but is unable to help Heinz get a permit to stay in England permanently. In order to protect Heinz from the Nazis, Christopher and Heinz travel Europe together (these scenes are not seen, only referred to), but Heinz is caught by the Gestapo. Sentenced to a year of hard labor and two years in the army, Heinz and Christopher are separated and my dislike of Christopher really grows.

After running into Jean again at a restaurant she crashes, Christopher expresses relief over being separated from Heinz. RELIEF!!!! Sure, in a way Heinz really lucked out since he was sent to do labor instead of actually being sent to a concentration camp. But Christopher, your boyfriend was arrested and is essentially being held prisoner in a country that WILL MURDER HIM if he tries to express his sexuality and you feel RELIEF!? Not cool, Christopher! Not cool at all!

Worse, in 1952 Christopher returns to Berlin and meets up with Heinz once more. Since they were separated Heinz has married a woman ‘who doesn’t ask questions’ and has had a son who he named Christopher. While this scene is played as a touching reunion, and Christopher seems genuinely moved that Heinz named his son after him, I can’t help but feel sorry for Heinz’s poor wife. It’s just terrible that people of this time period were under so much pressure to pass as ‘normal’ that they would marry just to keep up the charade. That just sucks no matter who you are.

Heinz, obviously still in love with Christopher, offers to follow him back to America (where Christopher is currently living) and Christopher totally blows him off. Which I marked down in my notes as ‘Christopher is a horrible person, he should have broken things off with Heinz more gently WTF the man WENT TO A LABOR CAMP FOR BEING GAY AND WAS PRESSURED INTO MARRIAGE TO APPEAR NORMAL YOU HAVE TO BREAK UP WITH HIM GENTLY YOU ASSWIPE!’ Christopher then returns to his old boarding house one last time to see his old landlady in West Germany who gives Christopher the dolphin clock that features throughout the film. (And, like I said before, it’s the actual clock that Christopher Isherwood actually owned!)

Ah, and then comes the traditional black screen with the title cards telling you the end of the story that didn’t get filmed. Christopher moved to America, met Don Bachardy (his lifelong partner), and was embraced by gay culture and became quite famous. After Christopher and His Kind was published, Heinz was horrified by how frank it was and never spoke to Christopher again. (NOT COOL DUDE! Outing your fellow gays when they are married and do not want to be outed is not a good move. Especially since this is only 1976 and the world is NOT THAT FRIENDLY towards gay people yet. Hell, I wouldn’t out someone today if they weren’t comfortable with it! People are assholes!)

And then it happened. The title card that appeared and RUINED EVERYTHING because it is my weak point and makes my mind run screaming whenever it happens IRL. (And often in fiction too.) Christopher’s younger brother Richard apparently started up an incestuous relationship with their mother towards the end of her life. **Mind screams and dies.** It is worse because it actually happened! Ahh! How fucked up is that!? No wonder Christopher didn’t go to her funeral! It seems silly that a title card would ruin a film for me, but I don’t know if I can watch this movie again without that tidbit running through my mind the entire time. Oh incest, how you squick me out more than anything else in the world….

All in all, I still really liked the film, but I REALLY could have done without that last piece of information.