Can there be a spy movie without gunfights, rocket skis, and sports cars with advanced military weaponry? Judge Diane Wild says yes, and we call that a "drama."
Convention outraged. A class abandoned. A country betrayed.
Reality: In the 1930s, a group of four idealistic young men met at Cambridge University. While it's likely that many idealistic young men have met over the years at Cambridge University, these men in particular went on to earn positions of authority within British intelligence, then offered state secrets to the KGB. The notorious Cambridge Spies escaped detection for decades, in part because of their educational pedigree. They knew the secret handshake of the elite. They belonged.
But obviously they didn't really.
Fiction: Another Country is an exploration of what might make a man like Guy Burgess, one member of the Cambridge Four, break with his class and his country.
Facts of the Case
Rupert Everett (An Ideal Husband) plays the Burgess-like Guy Bennett in one of his first movie roles, reprising the character from the original stage play by Julian Mitchell. The film begins in 1983, with a reporter arriving in Moscow to interview an unrepentant Bennett, who recalls his days at a public school. (Those wacky Brits—in my corner of the world, we'd call it a private school.) Told in flashback with the interview as the framing device, the movie concentrates on Bennett's alienation from his peers at the Eton-like boys' boarding school rather than on his recruitment as a spy.
Fellow alienated peer Tommy Judd (Colin Firth, Bridget Jones's Diary) is an ardent communist and openly scornful of the school's rigid, often unspoken traditions. Though considered something of a joke, he manages to garner some respect for his devotion to an ideal, even if that ideal is Marxism. But Bennett is not a self-proclaimed outsider. He longs to be a prefect and a member of the school's four-member ruling class, the so-called Gods.
The cloistered teenage boys frequently pair up for secret trysts in closets, all the while preserving their heterosexual identities. But Bennett realizes that his attraction to James Harcourt (Cary Elwes, Ella Enchanted) is not a passing crush. After the suicide of a gay classmate, Bennett must decide whether he will stand up for his ideals or be one of the tribe he so desperately wants to rule.
Another Country is no spy caper. You won't be on the edge of your seat wondering whodunit, or be riveted by plot twists and turns. It is, however, a beautiful character study with finely nuanced performances, particularly by the sharply handsome Everett in a star-is-born turn.
It opens with lush images of the palatial school and grounds, then enters the rarefied world within. The cinematography by Peter Biziou (The Truman Show) highlights the gorgeous Apethorpe Hall setting, and director Marek Kaniesvska (Less Than Zero), with his first feature film, gets great performances out of his young cast of then-unknowns (even the minor characters who populate the movie). The soundtrack by Michael Storey is as lush as the cinematography and as nuanced as the performances.
One glimpse of peacock-colored waistcoats and black top hats, one sound of clipped accents, and it's obvious these boys were born into a life of privilege. Bennett, Judd, and their schoolmates live in an insular society—another country, if you will—with its own class structure and rituals. Conformity, cleverness, and beauty are the most valued commodities. This is a society that has shaped and warped many generations of English school boys: "If our parents only knew what actually went on here," Bennett laments. "They do know. The fathers, anyway," Judd reminds him.
Another Country is largely a coming of age story. Bennett and Judd rib each other about their "passing phases"—homosexuality in Bennett's case, communism in Judd's—at the same time as they grow more comfortable with what they really believe in. Both are asked to betray their ideals, and each grows closer to understanding the other through their separate ideological tests.
This was the 1930s, when "pinko commies" were barely tolerated and homosexuality was illegal in England. Bennett's own mother, oblivious to her son's leanings, sees the suicide of his gay schoolmate as something of an honorable sacrifice. "Oh well, better off dead, no doubt about it," Bennett responds sarcastically. "I have known one or two of those and they're never very happy, you know," she says. "Oh, they can be very amusing, but…"
When it's common to hook up with other boys for sexual release, what does it mean to identify yourself as homosexual? For these boys, it's not the act itself that's the sin, it's getting caught in the act. Or admitting you enjoy the act. Or believing it's not a meaningless act. So Bennett's dawning realization that he is not like the others is an unwilling act of defiance. Admitting his preference is Bennett's first small act of treason against the society he desperately wanted to belong to.
"Treason and loyalty, they're all relative. Treason to what? Loyalty to whom?" the old Bennett asks. So the ultimate question—why did Guy Bennett betray his country?—is answered, in part: because it betrayed him.
Fans of the actors may be curious to see them in these early roles, and expectations of fine performances and fresh young faces will not be dashed. Just don't expect the confident Everett of My Best Friend's Wedding, the vulnerable Firth of Love Actually, or the heroic Cary Elwes of A Princess Bride.
Everett does possess his trademark urbane wit here, but with a gravity and earnestness not always evident in his more popular films. Though Everett's flamboyant-yet-vulnerable performance is the showcase, Firth is his perfect foil as the deliciously snotty malcontent Tommy Judd.
The young Firth is nearly unrecognizable as the cynical, idealistic Judd. He is the communist connection that explains how the elderly Bennett (still Everett, in distracting old-age makeup) ends up in Moscow reflecting on his days of espionage—Judd's vision of a more just world through Marxism finally finds meaning for Bennett when faced with his own injustice. The movie ends before the leap into the world of spies, but it provides the psychological underpinnings that allow us to understand how young Bennett became old Bennett.
For a 20-year-old film, Another Country has held up well and is presented in a great DVD transfer. The vivid colors in outdoor settings contrast with the shadowy richness of the indoor shots, and there are few artifacts to mar the image. The newly engineered Dolby Digital 5.1 track nicely renders the music and dialogue, but is not heavily tested by this quiet drama.
Warner Brothers and BBC Video have released Another Country in a "Twentieth Anniversary Special Edition" package, with a slate of extras that looks more promising than it actually is. The commentary with Kanievska and Biziou is often thoughtful, but more often dead silent. I would hate to see the studio PR machine taking control and scripting commentaries, but I would love to see some forethought put into them by the participants themselves, instead of listening to two people watching a film.
There are two news items from the early 1980s included as well. One has James Lee, the head of production company Goldcrest Films, talking about the state of the British film industry in advance of Another Country's appearance at the Cannes Film Festival. This might have been marginally interesting in 1984, but two decades later, is mostly irrelevant. The other news item is an interesting but too-short collection of interviews about the original stage play, with Everett, playwright Mitchell, and Kenneth Branagh (who played Tommy Judd). There's a clip of a longish scene between Everett and Branagh, offering a nice comparison between the play and film versions. I would have loved a fuller account of the play's run—apparently Firth played Bennett for part of the run, before taking over from Branagh as Judd for the film.
Other extras are a scrapbook of images and selections from the original score. Commercials for BBC America—including a documentary on the real Cambridge spies—play automatically. This just made me curse the commercials and wish for a featurette on the true-life story as another extra.
Another Country is an intelligent, compelling story with themes to sink your teeth into. As long as you expect more Merchant Ivory than James Bond, you can't go wrong with this title.
The British government may disagree, but I say not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Commentary by director Marek Kanievska and director of photography Peter Biziou
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