Christopher Isherwood: the man, the memoir, the biopic.
You’ve heard the story before. That of a young upper-middle class Englishman who in casting aside the homosexual shackles of his homeland, sets out to sample the hedonistic gay subculture of pre-war Berlin. Throw in a boarding house that brings him into contact with a series of eccentric characters, including an aspiring actress / nightclub singer and you have all the makings of a set of best selling stories, let alone an Academy® award winning film musical.
And perhaps that is the downside of this glorious production. For in spite of being executed with the quality production values that are synonymous with BBC drama, such is the celebrity status of the film Cabaret, winner of no less than 8 Academy® awards and the stories and indeed the memoir by Christopher Isherwood itself, that a "seen it all before" look and feel is somewhat unavoidable, even when adapted by the fine pen of Kevin Elyot of Clapham Junction credit.
Cabaret without the songs, perhaps. But what is different lies in the casting of the incumbent Dr Who in an overtly gay role, one that saw Matt Smith transport himself back in time to portray then budding author Isherwood, who in 1931 and upon the invitation of his close friend and occasional lover WH Auden left the sexual repression of England behind for the decadent delights found in macho German men going gay for pay. Setting up shop as an English teacher, he was soon to forge a friendship with fellow lodger and artiste Jean Ross, namely the inspiration for the character Sally Bowles. Yet it is Isherwood’s love affairs with sexy escort Caspar and in particular his longing for local lad Heinz that provide the emotional undercurrents of this work, a force that is set to be reckoned with when Caspar shows his true colours at a time when anti-semitism was a rising tide, one that would eventually lead to Isherwood returning to England complete with Heinz in hand, in his ill-fated attempts to save his lover from the Nazis.
Directed by Geoffrey Sax of Tipping the Velvet fame, infused with a series of lush homoerotic "jetty" moments and complete with a fine cast including Pip Carter as WH Auden, Matthew Bourne dancing star Will Kemp as Bobby Gilbert, Lindsay Duncan as Isherwood’s monstrous mother Kathleen and Toby Jones of
Infamous fame going for cinematic gold as bewigged queen Gerald Hamilton, aka the fictional Mr Norris, the unenviable task of trying on Liza Minnelli’s shoes for size lay with Imogen Poots; a green nail varnished girl who in true cabaret style is more concerned with Isherwood attending her show, than the nature of his sexuality. Into such a mix, Alexander Doetsch as Caspar is on hand to sex things up, leaving the sweet charm of Douglas Booth, previously seen portraying Boy George in the television drama Worried About the Boy to maximum Heinz effect.
Told in retrospect by way of an aged Isherwood writing his memoir in Los Angeles in 1976 and ingrained with all the characteristic feel of a televised biopic, the result is a graphic reminder of times when wild gay abandon lay in the shadow of the rise of fascism. Sure it drags in parts, but it also marks the gayest production that the BBC has aired in ages. For and unlike many a title I could name, this is gay to the core, even if those hoping for a glimpse of a naked Doctor would come to find that and in keeping with Smith’s family friendly image, you can be naked, without being naked. Need more be said?
Gay Visibility - overt.
Nudity - the full monty.
Overall - file under ... 4 stars.
a Mammoth Screen Production for BBC.
broadcast UK / Sat.19.March.2011: 21:30 - 23:00 BBC2 / BBC HD.
available on DVD as part of the ITV Studios Home Entertainment catalogue
Matt Smith / Christopher Isherwood, Imogen Poots / Jean Ross, Lindsay Duncan / Kathleen Isherwood,
Perry Millward / Richard Isherwood, Toby Jones / Gerald Hamilton, Pip Carter / WH Auden,
Alexander Doetsch / Caspar, Faolan Morgan / Pieps, Issy Van Randwyck / Frl Thurau,
Clare Louise Connolly / Frl Schmidt, Maggie Hayes / Frl Mayr, Iddo Goldberg /
Wilfrid Landauer, Will Kemp / Bobby Gilbert, Douglas Booth / Heinz,
Gertrude Thoma / Fr Neddermayer, Tom Wlaschiha / Gerhardt
Neddermayer and Stuart Graham as the Passport Officer.