Friday November 1, 1996
"Beautiful Thing," which is two-thirds of a good film, is a tender coming-of-age love story set in London's Thamesmead Estates, which has bold, dramatic architecture that bespeaks of social progress but has the same lack of privacy and small quarters typical of housing projects.
Living side by side are teenagers Jamie (Glen Berry) and Ste (Scott Neal), neither of whom likes school or playing rugby, although Ste loves sports and is a good swimmer. In short, they're the kind of youths who are inevitably described as "sensitive," Jamie especially. That, of course, is virtually a code word for "homosexual."
Jamie is uncertain about his sexual orientation but, with every passing day, is increasingly sure that he is gay. Ste is into denial about his sexuality, just as he is about the abusive treatment he receives routinely from his father, a drunken ex-boxer, and his drug-dealing older brother. Ste is frequently encouraged by Jamie's mother, Sandra (Linda Henry), to stay overnight, which means the boys end up sharing a bed and gradually falling in love for the first time.
This profoundly working-class environment is scarcely the most hospitable for gays. Yet Jamie has some pluses on his side. Sandra is a tough, vulgar 35-year-old barmaid who dreams of landing a job managing an attractive pub with living quarters above it. She is also a fiercely protective, loving and intelligent single mother.
She has a younger lover, Tony (Ben Daniels), a spacey, sweet-natured neo-hippie. There is, therefore, a realistic expectation that Sandra will be able to take her son's sexual orientation in stride, even though Jamie is understandably apprehensive. On the other hand, there is a very real possibility that Ste's father or brother will kill Ste if he comes out in any public manner.
Director Hettie Macdonald and writer Jonathan Harvey, in adapting his own play, do a fine job of creating an engaging, credible film with a good mix of humor, affection and concern for its people. There is much fine acting, so typical of the British, with Linda Henry a powerhouse in portraying the strong, earthy Sandra.
Consequently, it's all the more disappointing when inexplicably, two-thirds through its 89-minute running time, "Beautiful Thing" starts coming apart and throwing its well-established realism out the window. Typical of this disintegration is Linda's abrupt dismissal of the loving Tony, who the night before demonstrated a surprisingly mature sense of responsibility when he stepped in and saved the life of a neighbor, a spunky but pessimistic young girl (Tameka Empson), obsessed with Mama Cass, who has tripped out on drugs. (You have to wonder if the film has been shortened for some reason.)
Ironically, "Beautiful Thing," with its credibility, has earned a happy ending, the logical one being Linda inviting Ste to live with her and Jamie in their new digs. Instead it opts for a sentimental fantasy finish. Yet because the film is so effective for its first two-thirds and because it has its heart in the right place throughout, audiences may be willing to forgive its final third.
Beautiful Thing, 1996. R, for sexuality, pervasive strong language and drug content. A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Channel 4 presentation of World Productions production. Director Hettie Macdonald. Producers Tony Garnett, Bill Shapter. Screenplay by Jonathan Harvey; based on his play. Cinematographer Chris Seager. Editor Don Fairservice. Costumes Pam Tait. Production designer Mark Stevenson. Art directors Alison Wratten, Chrysoula Sofitsi. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. Glen Berry as Jamie Gangel. Linda Henry as Sandra Gangel. Scott Neal as Ste Pearce. Tameka Empson as Leah. Ben Daniels as Tony.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times