Dir: Richard Laxton. UK-US. 2009. 74mins.
The sole calling card of this pedestrian made-for-TV biopic is John Hurt’s screen-hogging central performance as historic British gay icon Quentin Crisp over thirty years on from his previous, career-making Crisp incarnation in The Naked Civil Servant. Charting Crisp’s later life in New York, the film suffers dramatically by comparison with its groundbreaking predecessor. There is nothing in late-period Crisp to match the sheer bravura of his flamboyant defiance of English society in his youth, the downbeat ‘years of decline’ mood will be a turn-off to many, and even some of the witty aphorisms that were Crisp’s stock-in-trade fall a little flat.
Commissioned, like The Naked Civil Servant, by British broadcaster ITV, the film has the conventional look and leisurely pacing of a television drama, and although the ‘festival version’ which premiered in the Panorama section of the Berlinale runs four minutes longer than the TV cut, it is difficult to see theatrical distributors taking the bait. Though further festival action looks likely, especially in the LGBT niche, An Englishman In New York belongs on the small screen.
Briefly sketching in the late fame that came to Crisp after The Naked Civil Servant was broadcast in 1975, the film soon cuts to his move to New York in 1981 at the age of 72. Here in Manhattan, surrounded by roller-blading men in pink shorts and girls with early-Madonna haircuts, the extravagant Crisp feels at home. His one-man show, a mix of autobiographical monologue and arch Q&A, is a hit (cue cheesy rent-an-audience ovations) and Crisp gets himself a feisty agent (Kurtz) and begins writing film reviews for gay magazine editor Phillip Steel (O’Hare).
The first real hint of tension on the rather flat dramatic monitor comes when Crisp is ostracised by the gay community (and briefly ditched by Steel) for quipping that Aids is a ‘fad’. The message is that Crisp was once persecuted by straight society and is now a victim of an increasingly conventional and rule-bound gay community. But the script never quite gets its teeth into the conflict, or Crisp’s internal contradictions, as it glides episodically through the facts and friendships - like his platonic relationship with Aids-afflicted painter Patrick Angus (Tucker) or his association with avant-garde performance artist Penny Arcade with whom Crisp did some of his last shows.
Hurt inhabits his subject just as convincingly as he did in The Naked Civil Servant; the idea that in some ways his Crisp is as real as the persona invented by Denis Pratt (Crisp’s birth name) is dallied with in a scene where we see Crisp played by Hurt playing Queen Elizabeth in Sally Potter’s Orlando. But the material Hurt is given to work with lacks the brilliance that the persona deserves. By the time the Crisp-inspired title song by Sting unspools predictably over the end credits, we don’t really feel we’ve learned a lot more about this remarkable one-off than we did first time round.
(44) 207 704 5334
Peter H Oliver