You guys, the Oscars this year were so gay! Neil Patrick Harris and his giant stuffed bulge were so gay. That acceptance speech Graham Moore made for winning Best Adapted Screenplay for The Imitation Game was so gay. The Imitation Game itself, nominated for Best Picture was SO GAY.. Oh wait. NPH is the most innocuous non-radical faggot to enter the public sphere since Sean Hayes, Graham Moore is STRAIGHT (wtf?), and the gayest thing about The Imitation Game is that its leading actor’s name sounds a little porny if you pronounce it drunk. Not to mention, where THE FUCK was Joan Rivers’ slide in that In Memorium segment?!
Such unabashed heteronormativity makes a cake boy like me go straight to the Netflix Instant Gay & Lesbian section looking for solace. To my chagrin, eCupid is still there, mocking me for even considering clicking play. But what ho, salvation from the soft-core standbys; a new addition to the dreck that is gay cinema, and this one really seems like a doozy. Inter-racial, closeted gay, British, tragic death mope-fest Lilting creeps up in my queue, promising something more than a Kickstarted Wolfe Video. I want to click play, but after viewing the trailer multiple times I think, “no. I don’t need to feel even shittier about myself”–watching a room full of completely out of touch celebrities celebrate each other already made me feel numb and numb-er and it was getting late. But then a quick Google search leads me to the revelation that lead actor Ben Whishaw is not only super cute but ACTUALLY GAY. Hold the phone, or at least put it on vibrate, Mama is in for this ride, even if it promises to depress the shit out of me.
This first full-length feature film from director Hong Khaou (short films: Spring 2011, Summer 2006) tells the story of Richard (Whishaw) trying to connect with the mother of his recently deceased, closeted lover. Cheng Pei-Pei (previously seen being fucking fierce in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) plays Junn–the Cambodian-Chinese immigrant mother of Kai, the dead boyfriend (Andrew Leung)–with intense subtlety and tightly wound grief. Richard enlists the help of Vann–a freelance translator played by Naomi Christie, in her big screen debut–to aid the budding romance between Junn and her old-folks-home flirt-buddy, Alan–played by long-time BBC dayplayer, Peter Bowles. The story proceeds with stilted interactions, purposefully lost-in-translation confessions and non-communications between the still-closeted Richard and Junn–who’s always known Richard as her golden boy Kai’s pesky roommate, not love bug.
Whishaw’s utterly heart-breaking, weepy performance was refreshingly non-masculinizing. A typical closet case on gay celluloid always amps up the bro-factor, but Khaou’s elegiac tale doesn’t leave room for stock gay shame. Instead, the conflict seems to be a a deeper one, and thusly, more relatable kind of cultural and generational disconnect that happens to be steeped in internalized homophobia.
Needless to say, the performances all-around are stunning. I would actually pay money and see Paddington to hear Ben Whishaw play a cartoon bear just for that warm, cuddly, Anglo voice. He’s one of those great, fragile thin-skinners–able to tap into deep sorrow at the drop of a hat–but also able to warm our hearts with appreciated, truthful daftness. And the icing on the cake (or maybe the filling) is that we know Whishaw relates to the specific intricacies of a gay relationship because he’s actually in one in real life. Nice try, Gyllenhall, but it takes one to know one.
I actually can’t harp on this point enough. With the long-time cinema tradition of treating “gay roles” as hearty actor challenges, akin to playing the mentally ill or physically disabled, it’s a breath–no, an entire oxygen tank–of fresh air to see a gay lead role go to a gay leading man. This movie is very much a gay movie. It’s not a universal love story, it’s not for your homophobic Republican mom to moon over with her gal pals, and it’s not a fetishized use of a real community to get more awards and accolades. That is not to say that the acting challenges Whishaw deftly dances through aren’t impressive. In fact the interplay between Whishaw and his character make it one of the deepest performances I’ve seen on screen in a long time.
Ok, enough praise party. What’s the down-side?
Although certain formal aspects of Lilting have been justly lauded for their excellence (e.g. winning Best Cinematography for World Cinema Dramatic at Sundance in 2014) others, namely editing, seem to be less sophisticated in their execution. Semi-dream-like sequences abound in which dialogue continues over shots of actors silently staring at each other (apparently referencing an internal dialogue, conversation with a ghost, something?) but ultimately, the choice seems overused and under-developed. Had the film been edited as simply and dryly as the narrative progression, I think the overall impact would have been stronger. The cut-scene-overdubbing in combination with a morose and, yes, “lilting” score seemed to intentionally warm up an otherwise cold, British drama. I would argue, however, that an embrace of the starkness of the circumstances of Lilting from multiple formal angles would have allowed the remarkable performances and courageous, heartfelt script (penned by Khaou) to burrow a little deeper into my jaded black heart.
Still, an overall positive showing for queer cinema. Maybe an actual gay like Whishaw will someday be able to accept an Oscar for playing a gay role, and give a legitimate shout out to all of us other folks out here living as other, instead of just telling us to “Stay weird.”