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It is often LGBT+ British films that capture the place I live in most vividly.
I watch a film like Weekend and feel like it could be taking place next door. I watch Beautiful Thing, and it’s as if I can feel the exact same (low) temperature of air on my skin. I’ve walked those streets. I’ve talked to these people. I recognise their faces. I recognise this place.
I’ve come to this conclusion: queer films often have such a vivid sense of place because their characters are so defined and confined by their surroundings. I’ve compiled the below list of ten films that define British LGBT+ cinema, and all but one of them depict characters who face various forms of homophobia. It ranges in severity: in some, homophobia is written into the law. In others, it’s evident in judgemental glance, or even internalised within.
Queer characters in cinema are often hyper-aware of how they are perceived by others. The place and time that they live in is a crucial element, and therefore it must be felt by the viewer. In the hands of skilled filmmakers, the following ten films place you in a recognisable, tangible world. They capture Britain as it is.
This list is in honour of Francis Lee’s brilliant debut God’s Own Country, which is out in cinemas now.
Victim was released before the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain. Its very existence was a breakthrough, but the film itself also functions brilliantly as a detective thriller.
The film begins with an extended sequence depicting the final hours of the central murder victim: a gay man who succumbed to blackmail in fear of his sexuality being publicly revealed. His young, scared face haunts the rest of the film. It gives us a reason to be compelled by the central mystery. We want justice just as much as our main characters do.
During its several, extended club scenes, Nighthawks feels like the result of David Lynch being let loose in a gay bar. All neon colours and synths, the film spends at least half of its runtime entranced by the sight of countless bodies twisting and turning amongst each other.
The rest of the film depicts the conversations and encounters of a geography teacher as he goes to work in the day, and has sexual encounters at night. As he tries to strike up long-term relationships with younger men who clearly aren’t interested, the hyper-naturalistic dialogue becomes intensely awkward. Nighthawks is a detached and mesmerising film. It often feel merciless as it observes its middle-aged protagonist fumbling about, but when all is said and done there’s a hint of optimism in the observations made about life’s peculiarities.
Young Soul Rebels (1991)
Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels was a hit at the 1991 Cannes film festival. Set in the wake of a gay man’s murder, the film follows two of his friends as they attempt to succeed as soul DJs. At first, the film is aimless in its exploration of their lives, jumping from chapter to chapter. It gains purpose in its latter half, as several themes come together: chiefly, the intersection of different cultural movements. Soulboys and punks clash, but the film finds its heart in a romance that forms between two men who follow those different movements. Young Soul Rebels begins in tragedy, but its final shot bursts with joy and hope.
Beautiful Thing (1996)
Arguably, Beautiful Thing is the seminal coming-out movie. It earns that in one scene, when a teenage boy’s mother practically rips the confession out of him: that he has been seeing the boy next door. That admittance comes with a whole lot of shouting and crying, but the experience is immensely cathartic. Beautiful Thing is not without conflict, but it has no interest in being anguished. It is euphorically sweet. The central romance is not made out to be the be all and end all of these boys’ lives. It is simply, an innocent and true first love. Who cares if it lasts forever?
Get Real (1998)
Above all else, Get Real is notable for being very, very funny ― especially in its use of double entendres. Protagonist Steven Carter is a lot more cynical than the boys in Beautiful Thing, but he’s hardly fully formed. He’s very aware of his gangly limbs and schoolboy’s haircut. He’s nothing like the school’s star athlete John Dixon, who strongly recalls a young Christian Bale. Yet somehow, the two end up entangled in a charming romance. Get Real has fun allowing John to shed his masculine bravado, but it’s even more commendable for the conclusion that it ultimately draws. Steven and John are allowed to be young, to have room to grow, and to move on.
Andrew Haigh’s masterpiece is as intimate as a film can get ― at first, painfully intimate, and then comfortably so. Tom Cullen and Chris New are both outstanding as Russell and Glenn, two guys who strike up a low-key romance over the course of a weekend. It’s ill fated: Glenn admits early on that he’ll be flying off to live in America at the weekend’s close. They spend what time they have talking, having sex, smoking weed, and talking some more.
Weekend is a film about finding the person you want to spend the rest of your life with ― and then realising and accepting that you can’t. That’s articulated in one particular shot: Russell says goodbye to Glenn, closes his apartment door behind him and walks towards the camera. The look on his face says it all without words: “I think this is someone I could be happy with”. The look spreads over his face, almost taking the form of bemusement. Then the door knocks. It’s Glenn again, and he tells Russell about America. They say goodbye, Russell shuts the door and turns back to us once again. This time, his face say something different: “Huh. I guess not”.
The Duke of Burgundy (2014)
Social realism The Duke of Burgundy is not. Peter Strickland’s beguiling film is set in a world populated entirely by women. Oh, and they appear to be weirdly obsessed with moths, for a reason I haven’t quite figured out.
Depending on the person or the mood, The Duke of Burgundy could be described as many things: romance, comedy, horror… it is everything at once, and unlike anything else. The central relationship is built on role-play and BDSM, but the push and pull of power dynamics between the two women turns out to be a perfect conduit to explore how any relationship might function. It’s all pulled off with a wink and a nod, yet the love story at the centre is incredibly sincere.
Ben Whishaw is reliably brilliant in this story of communication and translation. Lilting is intricately scripted, depicting the aftermath of a Chinese-Cambodian man’s death. Left behind are his lover Richard and his elderly mother Junn, neither of whom have a language in common.
A translator is hired to build communication between the two, and the delicate details of the translation process are fully explored. Richard’s end game is to tell Junn that her son was gay, and that they were together. The prickly relationship between these two generations of grieving people, as well as their involved translator Vann, is the basis of a film that is both intellectually fascinating and gently moving.
Pride tells a story with historical significance and dramatic emotional heft, yet the predominant emotion it encourages is joy. This is not simply a dry biopic-style account of the efforts of LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) in the 80s. Rather, it’s an exploration of community.
George McKay stars as Joe, a young man who joins the group by accident. Still living with his parents and far from out, he joins LGSM on their trips to Wales in order to aid the striking miners. Travelling hours away from home in a minibus with his new friends, Joe’s excitement is palpable. Homophobia is ever present in the film, but Pride shows the incredible happiness that Joe finds in embracing his sexuality. The community he joins is more caring and loyal than anything he’s ever experienced in his life. This is an ensemble piece, but it’s Joe’s story of self-discovery and self-acceptance that grounds Pride and makes it as moving as it is.
God’s Own Country (2017)
God’s Own Country is, without a doubt, one of the year’s best films. In the two and a half months since I saw it, it has lived vividly within my memory. This is that rare film: one that’s so full of beautiful moments that you’ll find yourself smiling all of the many times that your mind drifts back to them.
Josh O’Connor gives an astounding breakthrough performance as Johnny Saxby, an emotionally stifled Yorkshire sheep farmer who is tethered to his home by his ailing father. Gheorge, a Romanian migrant worker, changes everything when he arrives to help on the farm. The two strike up a romance that softens Johnny and allows him to open up to the world. God’s Own Country is an arresting illustration of the power that love has to change us. See it, and feel your heart swell.