Rating: (2 out of 5) Thursday, 10/15/2009, 7:00 PM Feature presentation, $20 at Shakespeare Theatre’s Harman Center for the Arts
IN 1975, before he was the unfortunate soul to have an alien baby burst forth from his chest during supper, John Hurt created a sensation with his heralded performance of the flamboyant Quentin Crisp in the BBC television movie The Naked Civil Servant.
The follow-up comes nearly 35 years later in the form of Richard Laxton’s An Englishman in New York, which follows a 73-year-old, eccentric Crisp — once again played by Hurt — to the Big Apple, where he finds, in effect, liberation. “The streets of New York are as close as you come to heaven on Earth,” he says in his emotionless, non-descript manner. But this is a man who, despite his staunch individuality, was trod upon for years by a British society where being gay wasn’t merely “illegal,” it was “profoundly illegal.” It’s on surprise when, upon spying some ACT-UP demonstrators, he comments, “I don’t believe anyone has rights.”
Crisp, who applied for and received resident alien status on the basis of his uniqueness, launched a final act in America that would play out over nearly 20 years. It’s on our shores he discovered a bohemian audience willing to hang on his every word, and, thanks to a brash agent (Swoozie Kurtz, in a role that doesn’t just waste her talents, it abuses them), gets a steady gig performing a one-man show at which he spills forth observations, recollections and witticisms.
Crisp is famous for hanging himself when at the height of his popularity, and perhaps believing in his own self-importance, he dismissed AIDS as “a fad, nothing more.” At its best, Laxton’s movie explores the ramifications Crisp’s off-the-cuff remark caused.
Unfortunately An Englishman in New York doesn’t rise to the occasion too often. It’s mostly a slow, plodding affair, failing to connect with the audience in a meaningful way. Obviously, it pays tribute to Crisp, just as the recent Milk did for Harvey Milk, but unlike Milk it does little to truly illuminate the man. Hurt’s performance is studied, measured, at times impenetrable. Where Sean Penn vanished into the role of Harvey Milk, becoming, in effect, the icon before our eyes, it’s hard not to see through Hurt’s actor guise. It’s Hurt we’re watching. With a bit of rouge and lipstick.
The movie falls somewhere between unbearable and fascinating. Only during a brief friendship with a young artist, played with brazen intensity by Johnathan Tucker, does something remarkable happen: the story comes to life and Hurt’s Crisp becomes more human and less a curio. It doesn’t last long. Soon, the artist has died and we’re onto the next phase in Crisp’s life, this one driven by the wild and woolly Penny Arcade (Cynthia Nixon, vastly miscast), and things start to draw to a close for the old fella.
The movie leaves you feeling despondent and depressed. More importantly, it leaves you wishing it had been made by another director, one who understood how to use the nuances of cinema to craft an interesting, involving biopic, a director who knows how to keep 77 minutes from feeling like 77 hours.
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