FILM / THE BIG PICTURE: Pride & Prejudice: Adam Mars-Jones on Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia, a brave film shored up by emotional insurance policies

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The Independent Culture
Strange that a breakthrough can also be a disappointment. Jonathan Demme's new film Philadelphia (12) tackles intractable issues - Aids and homophobia - with a directness that is unprecedented in a Hollywood movie, but nevertheless with a tilted caution, particularly considering the director's flair and track record. The script is written by Ron Nyswaner, but it seems like the work of an ethical committee, a committee made up of conscientious professionals, but still a committee.

By contrast Cyril Collard's recent Aids film, Savage Nights, was the product of a single point of view, that of a man with a missing immune system and a lot of living to do. It was a portrait of a complex individual in an impossible predicament - warts and all, rather than merely lesions and all. Philadelphia, instead, tells a story that is determined by executive decisions, decisions mainly about what to exclude from the narrative. It also takes out a surprising number of emotional insurance policies, as if deeply unsure of how a general audience would react in the absence of clear cues.

Philadelphia begins and ends with a scene of montage, and with a pair of title songs, each as soft and strong as a man-sized tissue. The opening sequence shows us a medley of urban scenes, while Bruce Springsteen with gruff pain sings 'The Streets of Philadelphia'. The montage says, we all live in the same city, don't we?, but is careful to include a shot of the Liberty Bell with its crack, symbol of American idealism and its imperfections.

The final sequence of the film is a montage of home movies shown at a wake, images of boyish promise, while Neil Young in his ache of a croon sings his song 'Philadelphia'. This ending seems like an attempt to round up stragglers in the audience - the ones who will cry for the death of a child, but not for an adult. If there are also diehards out there who differentiate between innocent and guilty suffering when it comes to Aids, these images serve to remind them that everyone was innocent once. Between the two songs is the story of Andy (Tom Hanks), a lawyer with Aids, and Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), who overcomes his anti-gay prejudice to represent him. Andy was wrongfully dismissed by his former employers, framed for incompetence when the real issue was fear of Aids.

Trying to combine two stories, of one demanding his rights and another rising above his fears, Philadelphia doesn't quite tell either of them. Joe's education in liberalism seems both pat and forced. He starts off with a violent revulsion from homosexuals, but his wife has a completely opposite attitude, and lists gay friends and family members with indulgent relish in the one strong scene she has before - her task performed - she is demoted to a passive role in the script.

Andy's experience, meanwhile, is shaped so as to make his need of Joe halfway plausible. He is gay but not 'political', which seems to involve being unable, in his search for sympathetic legal representation, to find the number of the American Civil Liberties Union or any gay helpline in his phone book. Consequently, he is rejected nine times, and 'must' resort to Joe, a virtual shyster with whom he has crossed swords in court.

If it is really true that a general audience (whatever that is) will only take a gay character to its heart if he is isolated - if friendlessness is a precondition for sympathy - then a film like Philadelphia is doomed to failure anyway. It seems more likely that the film is inventing the audience it caters to in this over-cautious way, and it's an odd sort of liberal movie that has so little confidence in liberalism.

At the same time, the film nobly refuses to go down the much-trodden path of domesticating gay issues and Aids' stories by turning them into things that really affect families. We aren't shown Andy telling his family about his orientation or his illness. That's all firmly in the back story by the time the film starts, so that what we see is an incomparably functional and accepting family support network, headed by Joanne Woodward as a mother proudly suppressing her own pain.

It's as if Ron Nyswaner had an angel on each shoulder while he wrote the script, a conservative angel and a progressive angel, each with a power of veto. So the conservative angel forbade the presentation of Aids as something that affects a community, and the progressive one retaliated by prohibiting a focus on family conflict. What we are left with from the angelic crossfire is a story of how Aids affects an American citizen, a person with a high cultural expectation of rights.

Tom Hanks is very fine as Andy. He makes a convincing physical transformation from professional smartness through defiant Aids-militant sexiness (ultra-short hair, stubble beard) to a debilitated preppy look for the courtroom scenes, but the psychology is also in place. We see a man losing the social ease that for so long seemed a birthright, flinching in advance now that he knows people will flinch when they see him.

Demme mixes formal and informal shots in a hybrid style. At one point, the camera keeps sliding towards a lesion on Andy's forehead, as if licensing a certain prurient fascination. At other times, Denne opts for a greater distance, looking down on courtroom or law library from ceiling height.

The strangest sequence is one in which Andy talks Joe through a Maria Callas aria. The camera adopts slanting angles and the lighting becomes highly artificial as Andy, trailing his IV stand, surrenders to the loss and longing in the aria. The sequence goes on and on; it keeps on not finishing, and it doesn't become ridiculous. It is bizarre nevertheless that in a film about a gay man with Aids the hero's most intense emotions must be filtered through a diva singing that she brings sorrow to those who love her. If homophobia is so wrong, why is homosexuality so under-represented in the imagery of the movie, so that gay love must be expressed in a sort of interpretative dance? There seems to be bad faith in reproaching a prejudice while taking such care not to offend it.

Andy has a lover of many years' standing (played by Antonio Banderas), yet we hear nothing about their romance. Their nearest approach to physical demonstrativeness is a slow dance at their own party. It has to be said that Banderas brings an altogether winning tenderness to an underwritten role. (He was filmed turning down Madonna's sexual advances in a documentary, and there seems to be no limits to his courage).

The compromises that have gone into Philadelphia, some necessary, some inexplicable and some arbitrary, all seem worth it for one moment, where Banderas, closing the door of Andy's hospital room after his family has taken their farewell, gives a wincing shrug. The gesture doesn't dismiss the family or its love but it says, that was them, and this is us. The actor with an expression of his face and a movement of the shoulders introduces us to an intimacy that the film has otherwise declined to explore. Such a moment is needed to remind us that a disappointment can still be a breakthrough.

(Photograph omitted)