Christopher and His Kind: Film Review
Based on the book by
Matt Smith, Imogen Poots, Toby Jones
This British TV film about decadent Berlin of the early ‘30s as experienced by English writer Christopher Isherwood is essentially a watered down Cabaret without the music.
The British TV film Christopher and His Kind indulges in naughty glimpses of decadent Berlin of the early ‘30s as experienced by English writer Christopher Isherwood, who would later, of course, memorialize those hedonistic days in stories that became the source material for Cabaret. But the film never gets to the beating heart of either its complex protagonist or the milieu that gave rise to Nazism. In other words, this is a watered down Cabaret without the music or the scathing look at a nation on the brink of madness.
The film, which had its North American premiere at the Los Angeles Film Fest, may play at further festivals since the recent film version of Isherwood’s novel A Single Man has sparked renewed interest in the author. It would appear to have little theatrical potential although the telefilm could wind up in adult cable or VOD.
Kevin Elyot bases his screenplay on Isherwood’s memoirs, written in the mid-‘70s, which more or less recount the real-life characters and episodes that were the basis for his Berlin Stories. There is no way this material can be fresh any more as these events have been hashed over in both Isherwood’s novel and memoirs, two movies — I Am a Camera and Bob Fosse’s great Cabaret—plus the Broadway musical.
Matt Smith gives a mannered performance as young Christopher, wide-eyed with barely contained delirium at the thriving underground gay scene in Berlin with its rent boys and cheap nightclubs, so wonderfully different than the repressive English society he has abandoned. Perhaps Smith is mimicking the older author seen in interviews and other old file footage but the fussiness of his performance is a distraction.
In his gloriously sleazy boarding house, Christopher meets virtually the entire cast of Cabaret: an aging queen (Toby Jones) with a penchant for bad wigs, masochistic encounters and dangerous espionage; English “singer-actress” Jean Ross (Imogen Poots, in the film’s best performance), clearly the inspiration for Isherwood’s immortal Sally Bowles; and the philosophical and tolerant German landlady (Clare Louise Connolly), who shrugs off the Nazis’ grab for power.
Elyot and director Geoffrey Sax adopt clumsy devises to illustrate the emerging persona of the expatriate author reinterpreting his experiences in fiction. These include Christopher carefully writing down the “colorful” dialogue just heard in conversation—meaning a viewer is now hearing it for a second time—or a character such as a Jewish department store magnate (Iddo Goldberg) giving Christopher a lecture on Hitler’s political acumen in his manipulation of German resentment of the Versailles Treaty. Worse, the filmmakers keep cutting to the typing hands of an aging Christopher as he writes his memoirs in Los Angeles in 1976.
Christopher’s love affairs with the poet WH Auden (Pip Carter), a rent boy (Alexander Doetsch) and an innocent street sweeper (Douglas Booth) he will eventually try to save, unsuccessfully, from the Nazis show him oddly in both a callow and careless light. He shrugs off Auden’s genuine love for him, honestly believes a relationship is possible with an escort and wills himself to fall in love with a man from a lower class only to betray that love by writing about it in his memoirs.
Christopher even remains pretty blind to Germany’s alarming descent into chaos until Jean and his boyfriend’s Nazi brother make him painfully aware of the dangers. You wonder if the filmmakers realize how negative this portrait of an artist as a young, self-centered man truly is.
The film is further hampered by its backlot look, with locations in Northern Ireland badly replicating 1930s Germany and low-rent sets for the nightclub and gay bar scenes.
Venue: Los Angeles Film Fest
Production companies: Mammoth Screen for the BBC
Cast: Matt Smith, Imogen Poots, Toby Jones, Douglas Booth, Pip Carter, Alexander Doetsch, Iddo Goldberg, Issy Van Randwyck, Lindsay Duncan
Director: Geoffrey Sax
Screenwriter: Kevin Elyot
Based on the book by Christopher Isherwood
Consultant: Don Bachardy
Producer: Celia Duval
Executive producers: Eleanor Moran, Michele Buck, Kevin Elyot, Rebecca Keane, Damien Timmer
Director of photography: Kieran McGuigan
Production designer: Suzie Davies
Music: Dominik Scherrer
Costume designer: Lorna Marie Mugan
Editor: Paul Knight
No rating, 90 minutes