VINTAGE REVIEW: Beautiful Thing (1996) *****
Starring: Scott Neal, Glen Berry, Linda Henry, Tameka Epson, Ben Daniels
Director: Hettie MacDonald
“Wish I was the one that was going away. Nothing ever happens around here.”
A film that manages to be strikingly familiar while simultaneously breaking new ground is rare. In the case of Beautiful Thing, the directorial debut from English director Hettie MacDonald, we’ve come upon a beautiful thing indeed.
This touching story revolves around the lives of Jamie (Berry) and Ste (Neal), two English teenagers each facing their own home struggles, and internal ones. Set in a working-class council flat, Beautiful Thing follows the two boys and their families as they push back against stigma and fight to escape what feels like a life half-lived. The film tells a tale that is not the ‘regular’ coming-out story seen in cinema, but instead a narrative about strength of character, overcoming adversity and emotional connection.
Watching the relationship bloom between Jamie and Ste is the crux of the film, and it blossoms in a way that is so unique to watch. Rather than beginning with a romance, the opening act of the film only contains subtle hints at attraction. In its place, the two are brought together by each seeking solace in another. The film is at its strongest when the two are exploring their own emotions, and each other’s. And these emotive scenes reflect a growing closeness between the two boys, running alongside a growing physical attraction too. But this connection is never overly sexualised, instead any connection is about emotional connection and shared struggles.
These struggles are faced by all. Beautiful Thing is based on the play of the same name by Jonathan Harvey and revolves around Jamie and Ste, but they are supported by some strong additional characters. Jamie’s mother Sandra (Henry) lashes out against her son, a woman discontent with her position in life and fighting to find happiness and independence. Leah (Epson), who acts as a friend to both boys, finds her council-estate life dull, and desperately longs to be someone else while idolising Mama Cass (whose music is laced throughout the movie). So much of this film is about being unhappy with the circumstances around you, especially in the case of Ste, who is abused by both his father and older brother. Thankfully though, the film is not all doom and gloom, with a cheerful tone throughout and a positive turn towards the end.
As both boys take steps away from their difficulties and towards each other, the film grows in tensions as their sexuality becomes something that is less easy to hide. Every action and line of dialogue is expertly positioned to pull the audience in to the boys’ situation and to empathise with what they are going through. Whether this is Sandra finding a gay magazine in Jamie’s room, Ste’s brother finding his busted shoes or Jamie seeing Ste’s bruises for the first time, you’ll find yourself latching on to their experiences and sharing in their pain.
There is a strong sense of ‘Britishness’ throughout the film, a product of both its nation and its time. The characters, plot-lines and even locations are all typically British and feel very familiar, and it is through these characters and locations that we are introduced to the world of the film. And while the characters feel familiar, they don’t come across as stereotypical tropes. Instead they appear as well-rounded, strong individuals with their own goals and understandings of the world around them. Their wit drives the comedy, while the situations they are in drive the emotional weight.
When watching Beautiful Thing, you might think that it doesn’t do anything striking in its visuals or format, but when you are so invested in the plot and relationships, it’s almost better that the style used is familiar and unnoticeable. It feels dated in this sense, clearly a home-grown film from the mid-90s, which adds to its charm.
In terms of how the film performs as a queer love story, you’ll be met with a possibly surprising happy ending. While both boys struggle against their orientation and face bullying from people at school, this tends to happen in the background and isn’t a major part of the plot. What we get instead is a slow, uninterrupted realisation on both their parts of who they are, and who they love. Even those around, who one might predict to react negatively upon finding out, are accepting (if not at first). Perhaps the most sinister moment is a reference to Jamie’s father, who Sandra states must never know, for Jamie’s own safety. But beyond this, it’s refreshing to see the pair overcome the stigma and gain confidence.
Beautiful Thing places us in a familiar world, but tells a refreshing and welcome story of happy endings, laced with emotive scenes and a wholesome purity throughout. It feels in parts like a regular British coming-of-age film, but becomes so much more through the heart-touching, intelligent storytelling and characters you cannot help but fall in love with.