Beautiful Thing (1996)

Back in the early 1980s, Channel 4's Film on 4 production schedule picked up a reputation for confrontational dourness, often setting depressing stories against a backdrop of Thatcher-induced urban British misery. Beautiful Thing is about a gay teenage relationship set on the Thamesmead housing estate. Carrying the Film on 4 imprimatur, it sounds exactly like one of those gloomy items of yesteryear, but it's actually a surprisingly upbeat and likable film.

My Beautiful Laundrette, the most obvious precedent for Beautiful Thing, felt the need to throw in racial tension, skinhead violence, small business ethics and dodgy politics. In contrast, this concentrates unfussily on the developing love affair between Jamie (Glen Berry), son of a tough single parent (Linda Henry), and Ste (Scott Neal), survivor of a thuggish Dad. It's certainly not bucolic or blinkered, and there is some sense of the dangers these loving likely lads expose themselves to, but it makes a change to see a film set on a housing estate where people grow plants to brighten up the concrete, the lifts work, there isn't graffiti everywhere, there's a real sense of community and the climax isn't a petrol-bomb riot.

It's certainly the '90s - Ste deals E, everyone swears, work isn't easy to come by - but writer Jonathan Harvey, adapting his own play, works in a seam of old-fashioned romanticism that comes from Jamie's TV-born familiarity with Eleanor Parker movies and the odd secondary character of Leah (Tameka Empson), a teenage black girl whose role model is Mama Cass. An especially nice aspect is that the heroes learn they are gay but are still embarassed by a transvestite stand-up comic in the scene pub they visit in an amusing attempt to define themselves. There's also a gem of a supporting turn from Ben Daniels as Henry's slacker boyfriend, a well-spoken but terminally confused layabout who would not be out of place in a Mike Leigh film.

It's less caricatured than Leigh's work and less angry than Ken Loach's films, and director Hettie MacDonald doesn't quite have the ambitions to match their intense achievements. But merely setting out to do a sweet, telling love story with a light rose tint makes this stand out. It doesn't have 'break-out hit' written all over it, but it is a genuine and pleasing little picture.

First Published In: the Ham & High (issue unknown)

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