Friday July 25, 1997
"Alive and Kicking," one of the strongest films in the recent Outfest '97, takes us into the world of dance--a world that has been decimated by AIDS. Any reluctance to submit to yet another film on the dread disease is understandable, but "Alive and Kicking" is full of surprises. Its people are sharply, even rigorously, delineated. And it develops into an unexpected love story of uncommon honesty with a great deal of insight about life, art and values.
Written with equal parts perception and compassion by playwright Martin Sherman in his screenwriting debut, "Alive and Kicking" was directed by his London-based fellow American, Nancy Meckler. She brings to the film the same acute observation of human behavior and attention to detail that characterized her mesmerizing 1995 debut film, "Sister My Sister."
"Alive and Kicking" begins somberly. The members of a London ballet company are visiting one of its dancers, Ramon (Anthony Higgins), who's in the final stages of AIDS. He's the mentor of one of the company's stars, Tonio (Jason Flemyng), who lost his lover to AIDS a year ago. He has AIDS himself but so far has had only one incident of AIDS-related illness. He is determined to complete what will be the company's final season; the company has lost too many dancers to AIDS, and its distinguished choreographer (Dorothy Tutin) is a victim of failing memory.
Talk about depressing! Talk about piling it on! However, Sherman, best known for his play "Bent," and Meckler are daring us to stick with them, instead deciding, "Enough already."
First, they snare us with Tonio, who is tall, pale, auburn-haired and handsome in that aristocratic, hawk-profiled British way. Tonio has the arrogance of a young gay man who knows his sex appeal. He faces up squarely, if understandably bitterly, to his AIDS status, but anyone less than gorgeous should approach him with peril.
One man who does anyway happens to be the one individual nobody recognizes at Ramon's funeral. It turns out he's Jack (Antony Sher), the dead man's AIDS counselor, a man of intense dedication who is all but overwhelmed by his work.
Attracted to Tonio, Jack begins to pursue him with the kind of single-minded passion he brings to his profession. Although many would find Jack attractive, he's a stocky, masculine, not conventionally handsome Bob Hoskins type who falls for below Tonio's standard of male beauty.
But Jack's hunger for love begins to equal Tonio's need for support. What cinches "Alive and Kicking" is the honesty Tonio and Jack possess in regard to themselves and each other: Were not Tonio facing the prospect of death, he wouldn't have the time of day for Jack, a truth that cuts to the heart of values in gay society with its premium on looks and youth.
But "Alive and Kicking" takes on a larger perspective, celebrating the importance of art. As ephemeral as dance seems to be in comparison with other arts, the film consoles us that, in the face of mortality, art can endure and possesses the power of redemption.
Under Meckler's firm direction, her cast, which includes Diane Parish as Millie, one of the company's star dancers and a staunch friend to the tempestuous Tonio, positively crackles. What versatile actors Flemyng and Sher are: in the recent "Hollow Reed," Flemyng played a macho contractor and secret child abuser while Sher is winning praise for his stylish Disraeli in the current "Mrs. Brown." Meckler steers her actors clear of those theatrical mannerisms and vocal inflections with which English actors on the screen can drive you up the wall.
An attempt at lovemaking on the part of Tonio and Millie, a lesbian, slips into self-consciousness. But that's a minor flaw in a fine film that embodies its title. "Alive and Kicking" is just that.
Alive and Kicking, 1997. R, for strong sexuality and for nudity and language. A First Look Pictures presentation. Director Nancy Meckler. Producer Martin Pope. Screenplay Martin Sherman. Cinematographer Chris Seager. Editor Rodney Holland. Costumes Monica Howe. Music Peter Salem. Choreographer Liz Ranken. Production designer Cecelia Brereton. Art director Philip Robinson. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. Jason Flemyng as Tonio. Antony Sher as Jack. Diane Parish as Millie. Dorothy Tutin as Luna.