Judge Brett Cullum found the language of cranes. It was hiding between the mating rituals of gerbils and the non-verbal cues of aardvarks.
Honesty has a vocabulary all of its own.
David Leavitt's novel The Lost Language of Cranes has always been a classic of GLBT fiction for its shocking meditation on identity and life choices. The narrative concerns a young man who comes out to his family, and ends up shaking his parents and their relationship to the very core. Turns out his father has been secretly hiding his own sexuality, and so his actions bring about a series of events that leads everyone to question how they have lived their lives. New York City looms over the proceedings, and the title refers to a mysterious incident involving construction cranes hanging over the cityscape. The book owes a lot to American family culture and the locale it's set in.
There were many changes in the screen treatment of the story, but it ably captured the story's heart. The biggest shock about the 1991 movie adaptation of The Lost Language of Cranes is that it transposes all the action to London. The story was optioned by the BBC, and they produced the film version as a television movie. Brian Cox (X2) was cast as the conflicted father, Eileen Atkins (Cold Mountain) played the long suffering wife, and Angus McFadden (Braveheart) took on the angst ridden son. Out director John Schlesinger (Marathon Man, Midnight Cowboy) even makes a cameo as an esteemed author at one point. The cast was phenomenal, and the adaptation of the novel captured the emotional turmoil with perfect pitch.
Like the novel, the film is concerned with mapping out the emotional and mental grief the drama provides. The son is determined to live life on his own terms as an out gay man, and his struggle is to live openly and honestly while finding happiness. Philip's journey isn't an easy one. He longs for a relationship that is permanent, and can't seem to find it with the cruel self-centered American he is dating. He proclaims to his parents he is gay, and we get to see the fireworks begin. His mother takes it very hard, and even distances herself from her son. Of course she has reason, since she sees through her husband and the revelation is uncomfortable. The father begins to question what he has done for most of his life, and starts to move toward flaunting his identity more and more.
The Lost Language of Cranes created quite a scandal when it first aired on public television in England for its frank and serious treatment of homosexuality. The plot didn't have much to do with AIDS other than the perfunctory mentions of the disease, and instead offered a very real, poignant look at the struggle gay men go through when coming out. More than that, it also showed a nice counterpoint between marriage and relationships for men with other men. This film was ahead of its time, and set the stage for a rash of films that gave "the gay '90s" its cinematic identity.
BBC Video's DVD treatment of the film is standard. We get the full screen telemovie aspect ratio intact, and the sound is a basic stereo that borders on monaural. The film looks and sounds much older than it is, and little has been done to make things cleaner or more clear. The picture and sound are often muddy, and thankfully there are subtitles for when the dialogue gets too muffled. The only extra to give us context is a program produced at the time of the filming which provides us with comments from the book's author, the script writer, the film's director, and some of the minor cast and crew. It's a good look at the production, but nothing too in-depth.
It's amazing to see The Lost Language of Cranes surface on DVD. It's an unflinching portrait of the pain caused by staying in the closet, and was way ahead of its time when it appeared in 1991. The performances are great, the script is touching, and everything comes together very well. It's a film I highly recommend as a classic of GLBT cinema, and an effective story that should engage anyone who decides to view it. I do wish we had more extras on this release, but enough to see it there on the shelf. I feared it had been lost in time since it hadn't generated buzz like Brokeback Mountain, but it is just as important and moving. It's a universal tale about what it means to stop hiding, and inventing your own way to communicate with the world.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Cast and Crew Interviews
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