Madagascar Skin

Saturday August 24, 1996

     To call "Madagascar Skin" a romantic comedy is a stretch, but then its people and the style in which their story is told are also a stretch. Yet it's well worth going the distance, because this is a special film that imaginatively poses the question: Can a straight man and a gay man find love and happiness together?
     Somewhere in Britain, Harry (John Hannah), a thirtysomething gay, suddenly snaps when the lights go up in a disco, revealing the large port wine birthmark that covers the left half of his face, disfiguring his otherwise handsome countenance.
     This time he's had it, and heads for the beauty and isolation of the rugged Welsh coastline. So full of self-loathing is he that he stops along the way to open a suitcase, burning not only all the photos he has of himself but even his birth certificate.
     He's holed up in his car, hidden by seaweed, on the beach, when he hears some kind of skirmish going on outside. No sooner does he step out of his shell, so to speak, than he discovers a badly beaten man buried up to his head in the sand. When the tide comes in, the man surely will drown.
     Talk about meeting cute. The man whose life Harry saves is a burly, bearded, middle-aged guy named Flint (Bernard Hill), a macho heterosexual, exuberantly vulgar but also warm and witty. Flint, in short, is the ideal paternal fantasy figure for a sad, lonely gay, yet you feel certain that the withdrawn Harry, with his bitter history engulfing him, will never give expression to any feelings he may develop about Flint when they set up housekeeping in an abandoned cottage.
     Writer-director Chris Newby takes great pains to keep "Madagascar Skin" from seeming like a filmed play, an "Odd Couple" for the '90s, by ever striving to be so cinematic as to verge on the surreal, seeming even to reach for an aura of magic realism.
     It is also quite possible that Newby means to stress how close to nature Harry and Flint are living so as to underline, rather gratuitously, that whatever may or may not happen between them is also natural. With his deliberately abrupt cuts and close-up barrages, Newby is sometimes overly strenuous and demanding, but he does get us caught up in Harry and Flint, played with such selfless warmth and affection by Hannah and Hill.
     As Harry and Flint try to adjust to each other, Newby--to his credit--never forgets that they live in the real world, where Flint's shady past may engulf both men and where they are going to have to figure out how to earn a living, regardless of what happens, or doesn't, between them. Newby takes Harry and Flint seriously, but he also allows a dry, even bleak British humor to streak through "Madagascar Skin," which owes its odd name to Flint's being reminded of the shape of Madagascar on a map when he first looks at Harry's birthmark.

Madagascar Skin, 1996. R, for strong language and violence. An International Film Circuit presentation of a British Film Institute production. Writer-director Chris Newby. Producer Julie Baines. Executive producer Ben Gibson. Cinematographer Oliver Curtis. Editors Newby, Annabel Ware. Costumes Annie Symons. Art director Rachael Robertson. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. John Hannah as Harry. Bernard Hill as Flint.

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