The Line of Beauty

BBC Home Video,

Saul Dibb

Andrew Davies
From the novel by Alan Hollinghurst

Dan Stevens,
Tim McInnerny,
Hayley Atwell,
Alice Krige,
Oliver Coleman,
Don Gilet
Alex Wyndham
Carmen du Sautoy,
Justin Salinger

Unrated, 175 minutes

Sex And Drugs And Margaret Thatcher
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, June 2010

The 1980s is not an era that I look back upon with misty-eyed nostalgia. Many refer to the 70s as being the "me decade" but I think that is more true of the 80s; a time in which materialism trumped idealism. Just look at some of the films from the period; the students in Risky Business weren't interested in saving the world or even acquiring knowledge, they just wanted good grades so that they would get into a good college as a stepping stone to a high paying job. The pursuit of wealth became the new religion. Arch-Conservatives had also hijacked the government and don't get me started on their response to the beginning of the AIDS crisis. In the USA we had Ronald Reagan and in Great Britain they had Margaret Thatcher. Pick your poison.

The Line Of Beauty (2006) is a three part BBC mini-series set in Thatcher's England. Directed by Saul Dibb from an adaptation by Andrew Davies, it is based on the Booker award winning novel by Alan Hollinghurst (The Swimming Pool Library). Teeming with wealth and upper class arrogance, it carries on the tradition of those socially conscious drawing room dramas by E.M. Forster, Jane Austin or - more specifically - Henry James, and updates it to 1983.

Nick Guest (Dan Stevens) is a young and gay Oxford graduate. His classmate, Toby Fedden (Oliver Coleman) has invited him to move in with his wealthy Notting Hill family while he researches his thesis on Henry James. Nick is in love with Toby, who is as straight as they come and engaged to an heiress. The Feddens are obscenely rich and Nick, a great admirer of beautiful things, wants very much to be a part of their world. Toby's father, Gerald Fedden (Tim McInnerny), is a Conservative MP in Thatcher's Parliament and he adores "her Ladyship." The family takes an immediate liking to Nick and welcomes him into the fold. The young man's sexuality is something that is understood but not discussed in their conservative urban manor.

The relationship between Nick and the Feddens is a strange symbiotic one. Nick has a very fancy roof over his head and he gets to enjoy an opulent life, rubbing shoulders with British high society. In return, Nick is responsible for the Feddens' troubled daughter, Catherine (Hayley Atwell), whenever the rest of the family is away. Amongst other things, Cat (Catherine) has a history of cutting herself. When the Feddens go off on holiday, Nick finds himself in charge of both the household and Cat's well being. When Cat has one of her episodes, Nick talks her down before it gets worse. He agrees to refrain from calling her parents and the two become platonic soulmates and confidantes.

Cat enjoys asking Nick what it's like to be gay. She also encourages him to go out on a date with a man he has contacted through a want ad. One of the first episode's plot threads involves Nick's relationship with Leo (Don Gilet), a slighter older black man in his late 20s. They meet at a popular pub. Despite being from other sides of the tracks, or maybe because of it, they hit it off. It is Nick's first time and he must be horny because they do it in a private park. Nick falls in love but drama is set into motion by Leo's ex. Three years pass and, in episode two, Nick is still living with the Feddens. He is also seeing Wani (Alex Wyndham), the closeted son of a Lebanese millionaire. Though engaged to be married, Wani heavily indulges in life on the down low, trysting with Nick and others. He introduces Nick to cocaine and threeways. The last act is scarred with scandal and comeuppance - some deserved, some not.

Drama needs conflict and there's plenty of it here. AIDS will smite more than one character. Nick finds dedicated family man Gerald in the throes of an affair with his secretary and keeps silent. After all, Nick is having his own affair with Wani even though the man is still engaged and acting the heterosexual role model to his family. When Cat discovers both of these things, and the secrets that Nick kept from her, it sends her over the edge.

The Line of Beauty is a terrific coming of age story set against 1980s British politics. The title pertains to the double 'S' of the ogee shape, described by William Hogarth in The Analysis of Beauty as being "the model of beauty." Ogee is also the name of an arts magazine that Wani and Nick have embarked upon. Nick uses the phrase to describe his lover's body, Wani will point to a line of cocaine and say "Now that's a line of beauty." Nick knows that his relationship with Wani is doomed but he thinks that Wani is the most beautiful man he's ever met. Cat tells Nick that "you don't fall in love with someone because they're beautiful" and the film explores Nick's journey towards identifying the difference between spiritual and material beauty. It is noteworthy that Nick is writing a screenplay based on Henry James' The Spoils Of Poynton, a novel about a man who loves beautiful things more than people.

Like another Nick in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, our protagonist gets to rise above his station and be welcomed into high society. Life seems to consist of one party after another. A country manor with lords and dignitaries in attendance hosts Toby's 21st birthday party and, after an elegant dinner, is transformed into a disco. Nick learns quickly how to fit in, and how to keep his forays into sex and drugs away from prying eyes. He impresses the right people with his knowledge of art. His looks are in his favor and he radiates the right amount of charm and social grace.

He eventually sees past the surrounding surface beauty and gets to taste the hypocrisy beneath. The blatant homophobia displayed by some of the Feddens' pompous Tory friends is shocking to say the least. Aristocrats politely sip their tea and remark that people with AIDS had it coming to them. Even more shocking is the way Gerald and the Mrs. (Alice Krige) tolerate these views despite Nick's presence in the room. Cat is tired of this and responds badly when she learns, at an important dinner, of the death of her "uncle." When her parents explain to their bigoted but important guests that "uncle" died of "an exotic bug he picked up in the Far East," Cat explodes and asks why they can't just admit that he was gay and died of AIDS. The ultra Conservatives are portrayed with the proper amount of moral rectitude but one of them is played as such a spitting and snarling beast, by one of the ugliest actors you have ever seen, that his portrayal becomes a cartoon.

Being American, my grasp of British politics lacks personal experience. I know that, under Thatcher, Conservatives passed Section 28 which banned government funding of any media that depicted queer relationships as normal and positive. I'm sure there are references that went over my head but the mini-series appears to get everything right. The rapturous way in which Gerald Fedden speaks of Margaret Thatcher is very reminiscent of the way that Conservatives drooled over Ronald Reagan at the same time here. When "The Lady" finally attends one of the Feddens' parties, Gerald is in seventh heaven. There is a very funny scene in which Nick, distraught over two shocks he has received that evening, sneaks out of the party, snorts a couple lines of coke, and then asks the Prime Minister to dance.

Nick discovers that being a modest middle class queer is incompatible with the life that he is trying to fit into. In this respect he fulfills the Jamesian hero role but it's difficult to tell at the end what he has learned from his experiences. One moment, packed with meaning, occurs when Nick's mother talks to him about the Feddens and says, "They've really taken you in, haven't they?" Nick replies, "Yes, I suppose they have." Nick, along with Wani, will pitch their Henry James script to uncomprehending film executives and describe it as "a very bleak book, even though it's essentially a comedy." This is an apt description of The Line Of Beauty.

The Line of Beauty isn't quite Merchant Ivory, but it is a handsome production with an outstanding cast. Andrew Davies, who wrote the teleplay, is noted for his literary adaptations, especially a 1995 BBC production of Jane Austin's Pride And Prejudice with Colin Firth. Dan Stevens' Nick is boyishly handsome, with a generous mop of great looking hair, and he oozes innocence and charisma. The well chosen soundtrack features music from The Clash, The Pretenders, Elton John, Duran Duran, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and others. Because this is the BBC, and not broadcast American television, the filmmakers aren't afraid to show two men kissing or having sex. It's always nice too when we see inter-racial pairings. The mini-series format allows for much story and character development but even three hours isn't enough time to capture all of the nuance in Hollingsworth's masterfully written novel. Even so, it satisfies the expectations of a BBC drama ala Brideshead Revisited and comes highly recommended.