Faced with a film as quietly bad as A Man of No Importance, as lazy in its pathos (even the title is sentimental), it's hard to know whether to crush it with rock or to run circles round it sniggering. This review will seek to combine these critical approaches.
The film, written by Barry Devlin, directed by Suri Krishnamma, tells the story of a Dublin bus conductor in 1963 who idolises Oscar Wilde, reading extracts from Wilde's work to enthralled passengers on his route, and recruiting them to act in his rudimentary production of Salome. Alfie Byrne (Albert Finney) refers to the young driver of his bus (Rufus Sewell) as "Bosie", and keeps a framed photograph of him on the mantlepiece next to his Oscar Wilde regalia. Alfie is a virgin, but is it possible that his feelings for his Bosie run deeper than he supposes? Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen.
Albert Finney has passed through a number of phases in his cinematic career. He has been strapping lad with cheeky grin (Tom Jones), burly man with scowl (roughly Wolfen to Miller's Crossing) and is currently exploring the possibilities of pouchy veteran with wan smile, in The Browning Version and now A Man of No Importance. This new interest in worms that turn was better rewarded in the early film, where the "Crock" at least denounced his own spiritual failure in front of the assembled school. When the worm turns in A Man of No Importance, it is a very little turn, and the worm remains well beneath the surface of the earth. Alfie's grand act of defiance is to put on his Wilde costume, parade down to the local louche bar, and whisper to a blond thug that he would like a cuddle. This in the Dublin demi-monde of the period was a code-phrase meaning "please beat me up and rob me". The lad and his pals do the honours.
The film-makers seem to imagine that they are giving us "a modern version" of Oscar Wilde in this tale of a bus driver's sexual awakening - though given that Alfie is still doomed to virginity at the end of the film, perhaps we should describe it as turning over in his sleep. It's as if they have misread Wilde's admission that the danger of his chosen life was part of its attraction, that he was feasting with panthers. That's panthers, okay? Not the sweet little rodents that nibble at sunflower seeds and spend hours at a time running on their exercise wheels.
If you think you can tell Oscar Wilde's story while leaving out such things as his intellect, creativity, exhibitionism and sexuality (Wilde had a married sex life, with two sons to show for it, as well as an appetite for telegraph boys), why stop there? Why not tell Oscar Wilde's story through the experiences of a tabby cat or a sewing machine? When Alfie has been appropriately cuddled by the gang from the bar, and is lying on his back in the street, the camera shows us the night sky from his point of view, and the soundtrack treats us to a saccharine tinkle. This presumably is the film-makers' modern version of Wilde's mot that we are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. Except that that was an epigram and this is a Disney moment.
If A Man of No Importance is not in any meaningful way about Oscar Wilde, nor is it in any meaningful way about a Dublin homosexual in 1963. It would be difficult to recreate Wilde's sexual milieu at this chronological remove, but if the film makers had wanted to research Dublin's gay scene in 1963 they could have done so. Being driven underground is not the same thing as ceasing to exist.
All the same, running the gauntlet of blackmail and imprisonment is likely to be bad for people's moral health and a realistic picture of Dublin gay life at the time would be a lot less sweet than A Man of No Importance. But then the film-makers are not interested in social history. All they have done is come up with a feeble but unthreatening image of homosexuality - as a dim, secret sadness - and then installed it in a decade where they think it looks plausible.
At one stage in the film, we glimpse the crowd in the louche bar, and they are as unlike gay men in 1963 as it is possible to be. Half of them look like extras from Querelle; there's even a 1990s goatee. In general, the film's sense of social period is on a par with its feeling for costume history (there were no PVC biker jackets in Dublin in 1963). The only contemporary event that people refer to is the Profumo scandal - and then they are under the impression (or is it the screenwriter?) that Stephen Ward's crime was homosexuality rather than living off immoral earnings.
Barry Devlin, the screenwriter, can produce some nifty dialogue of an Alan Bennett-plus-blarney type so long as he steers clear of such tricky subjects as Oscar Wilde and homosexuality. A Dublin woman attributes the lax morals of country girls to the quantity of loose straw lying about in those parts. A butcher, having been asked to provide meat for a fondue, asks his tenant what that might be. On being told that a fondue is a kind of dog, he decides that scraps and gristle would be perfect. Unfortunately, Devlin's chosen subjects are ... Oscar Wilde and homosexuality, and with these he is all at sea.
One of Devlin's ambitions was to give Wilde's story a happy ending. Certainly public disgrace, two years' hard labour, exile and premature death do not make up a merry destiny. But "happy ending" doesn't seem to describe Alfie's sentimental acceptance by his passengers and even his Bosie. All they are doing is endorsing his right to be unfulfilled.
The film-makers may be trying to be sympathetic about love's outsiders, but all they demonstrate is that sympathy minus knowledge equals patronage. They have come up with an image of homosexuality so comically unself-aware that the dumbest hick in the darkened cinema will be able to shout out, long before the hero gets wise to himself, "My dear sir, you are manifestly an Uranian. My advice would be to move to California immediately."
n All films reviewed open tomorrow