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‘Different for Girls’ Tale: Mix of Boilerplate, Subtlety

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Even in this sexually brazen age, romantic comedies involving transsexuals are not the usual thing. Filmmakers, not surprisingly, aren’t rushing to create genial romps about people who’ve turned to surgery to change their sex because, explains a dictionary, they have “the physical characteristics of one sex but a strong and persistent desire to belong to the other.” Which is why the British “Different for Girls” is different for sure.

The story of a relationship between a prim writer of poetry for greeting cards and a brawny, leather-wearing motorcycle messenger, “Different for Girls” is one of those films for which a lot has to be forgiven.

Its plot, direction and writing have the slapdash quality of mid-range British TV dramas, for which the film’s creators have done considerable work. But there’s an exceptional performance, a memorable character at the center of things that makes that forgiveness worth the effort.

“Different for Girls” begins with a prologue at a British public school where a teenage boy named Karl is tormented and beaten in the shower for thinking he’s a girl. He has only one defender, a solid, fearless lad named Paul Prentice.

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Flash-forward 15 or 16 years. Karl, after surgery and hormone treatment, is now a woman named Kim, leading a quiet life working for busybody Miriam Margolyes at Bon Mot Greeting Cards. Prentice is a beer-swilling biker with a perky girlfriend, “not pension plan material,” who has gone through a collection of odd jobs without ever quite managing to get himself sorted out.

A cute meet is the ticket for these two, facilitated by a crash of Prentice’s motorcycle into the taxi Kim’s in. Though Prentice knows it “sounds like a line from ‘Top Gun,’ ” he’s convinced he’s seen Kim before, and soon enough he figures it out. Sort of.

Faced with a world of sexual choices he never knew anyone had, Prentice is initially dazed and confused, unable to figure out what Kim’s sexual orientation is. Gay seems an obvious choice, which infuriates Kim: “I’m not a [expletive] drag queen,” she snaps.

Rupert Graves, who plays Prentice, is better known to American audiences through roles in films like “The Madness of King George” and “A Room With a View” than Steven Mackintosh, the actor who plays Kim. Though he makes Prentice too much the bull in the china shop at times, Graves selflessly provides the necessary dramatic foil for Mackintosh’s altogether remarkable work.

As Kim, who never doubts her choice but nevertheless feels sometimes trapped in a world she herself helped make, Mackintosh gives a performance of dazzling tact and delicacy that is as difficult to describe as it must have been to accomplish. Mackintosh couldn’t be more exactly nuanced as a woman who once was a man, someone who is understandably horrified at being mistaken for a drag queen.

The initial sections of “Different for Girls,” with Prentice and Kim tentatively renewing their friendship, trying to decide if it’s worth their time to surmount the inevitable awkwardness, are the film’s most satisfying. She learns to ride a motorcycle, he reads a book on transsexuals and mollifies his suspicious girlfriend (Nisha K. Nayar), and they both try to navigate their way through a relationship that lacks ordinary guidelines.

A plot does have to kick in eventually, and as written by Tony Marchant and directed by Richard Spence, what there is is not particularly inspired. It involves an unfortunate arrest, a sadistic policeman, the tabloid press, Kim’s supercilious sister (Saskia Reeves), her drill sergeant husband (Neil Dudgeon) and considerable amounts of sentimental boilerplate that isn’t up to the subtlety and sensitivity of the film’s best moments.

But those best moments, when they occur, are worth the trouble. Watching Kim and Prentice dancing--half alone, half with each other--to a record they both remember from school is to see something quite special, to feel nourished by an image and a relationship that is both out of the ordinary and as everyday as falling in love.

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* MPAA rating: R, for nudity, brief graphic sexuality and strong language. Times guidelines: a subplot about indecent exposure and detailed discussions of transsexualism.

‘Different for Girls’

Steven Mackintosh: Kim Foyle

Rupert Graves: Paul Prentice

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Miriam Margolyes: Pamela

Saskia Reeves: Jean

Charlotte Coleman: Alison

Neil Dudgeon: Neil

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Nisha K. Nayar: Angela

Released by First Look Pictures. Director Richard Spence. Producer John Chapman. Executive producers George Faber, Laura Gregory. Screenplay Tony Marchant. Cinematographer Sean Van Hales. Editor David Gamble. Costumes Susannah Buxton. Music Stephen Warbeck. Production design Grenville Horner. Art director Melanie Allen. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.

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* In limited release.

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