Film: Candyfloss for converts

BEAUTIFUL THING Hettie MacDonald (15) THE GROTESQUE John Paul Davidson (18); Sweet enough to make the hardest homophobe heart melt. But will they be watching? By Adam Mars-Jones
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If Beautiful Thing was any more desperate to be liked, it would be following cinema audiences home, wagging its tail and wanting to be thrown choc drops. Jonathan Harvey's script is based on his play, the most successful production to date of his one-man theatrical charm offensive, on behalf of young gay people with no special privileges.

One privilege his heroes, Jamie (Glen Berry) and Ste (Scott Neal), do have is of living right next door to each other on a housing estate in south-east London. When Ste's abusive father and brother drive him beyond endurance, he takes refuge on the other side of the wall and shares a bed with his mate. Jamie's mother, Sandra (Linda Henry), a rough diamond who looks like Dusty Springfield a few comebacks ago, thinks they're chastely disposed in the bed, top to tail. And so they are, at first. Then Jamie offers to massage Ste's bruises with the only unguent available (expect soaring sales of Body Shop's Peppermint Foot Lotion).

Harvey is committed to accentuating the positive, and his heroes don't waste much time agonising over the consequences of their erotic natures. They scamper through the early stages of finding themselves, with only token resistance, and come to understand commendably soon that the problem about their sexuality is not theirs but other people's.

One of the threats to the boys' continuing adventure is Leah (Tameka Empson), another neighbour, who drives the block mad with her Mama Cass fixation. Leah has put two and two together and come up with 69 (as Sandra might put it), and threatens to tell tales, not to Sandra who might be able to handle it, but to Ste's family, who very certainly would not.

Beautiful Thing would be no more than wishful thinking if Jonathan Harvey didn't write such droll and quirky dialogue and put it in the mouths of such engaging characters. Besides Leah, whose Mama Cass obsession the film borrows for its soundtrack until the camply tender music comes to represent every struggle against the odds, there is Tony, Sandra's toy boy, who has more ways of saying the wrong thing than there are days in the year. Ben Daniels does especially well with this part (Tony is two- dimensional at best) and first-time director Hettie MacDonald secures confident performances even from inexperienced young actors.

The grass may have terminal sunburn, but the Thamesmead estate in high summer seems a place where it might be possible to be happy. Children play shrieking under high-pressure hoses. Eventually, Jamie and Ste declare themselves, not simply by going to a gay bar or admitting the truth when challenged by Sandra, but by slow dancing right there on the concrete of the estate.

It's at this point that soft focus becomes something more like sunstroke. There's no doubt that Beautiful Thing is sweet enough to melt the hardest homophobe heart - the flaw with this argument being that homophobes don't go to see films whose posters show teenage boys hugging. Beautiful Thing was always likely to be preaching to the converted, but a goodly fraction of its congregation are likely to know from their own experience that it's really not so simple, that positive images only go so far.

Gay people are entitled to candyfloss, including candyfloss of the heart and mind. That is a significant civil right. But Beautiful Thing would have more force if it didn't pretend that self-acceptance was a one-shot deal. Think of Mama Cass and the ham sandwich that lay in wait for her after all her struggles to accept herself.

The Grotesque is also an adaptation of an existing text, this time of Patrick McGrath's studiously Gothic novel. The results aren't exactly happy, despite a rarefied cast (Sir John Mills in a cameo, McGrath's wife, Maria Aitken, in a minor role), but then happiness may not be the desired effect of so dark a story, taking place among such unattractive people. Presumably audiences are meant to echo the young heroine's reaction - "Oh! How horrid!" said with relish - when she comes across a dead animal in the lake.

There are animals galore in the family seat of the Coal family, enough for a private zoo - snakes, toads, a crow - and also for a taxidermist's shop. Sir Hugo Coal, played without undue subtlety by Alan Bates, is busy putting together a dinosaur in his barn - a broad hint that the story is about predators and also, the year being 1949, the extinction of an old order of dominant species.

If Sir Hugo is all too evidently a dinosaur, then the opportunistic mammal who seeks to replace him is Fledge the butler, played by Sting. When a young poet comes to propose to Sir Hugo's daughter, Fledge sees his chance to make mischief. When the young man disappears, The Grotesque turns into a murder mystery of a sort, though the annoying names (not only Coal and Fledge, but Limp, Giblet and even Dendrite) and the genre props - thunderstorms, marshes, family retainers both compos and non-compos mentis - ensure that it's closer to a game of Cluedo than a genuinely engaging drama.

When Fledge's machinations start to have a sexual edge, both straightforward and perverse, the story's debt to Losey's The Servant, latent in the book, becomes rather more obvious. The director, John Paul Davidson, has plenty of experience with documentaries, but doesn't quite get a handle on the tone of the story. Even the lighting seems inappropriately worn and misty, streaming in through the ancient windows on a day announced as Christmas; candles casting a golden glow over a nightmarish dinner party.

There are elements of black comedy in the story, but they aren't strong enough to take over, and The Grotesque is likely to leave audiences Poe- faced. The producer, Trudie Styler, is Sting's other half, which may prompt some viewers to wonder whether the mansion in the film might not be one of Sting's own residences, thus undermining the conviction of his portrayal of an upstart outsider. The part of Fledge, in effect, is a reprise of his role in Brimstone and Treacle; he manages to smirk even while kissing Theresa Russell. At one point he breaks with his fitness regime long enough to smoke a cigarette, though not to inhale.

n Both films are on general release from tomorrow