Review: An Englishman in New York [2009] - dir. Richard Laxton

Directed by Richard Laxton and written by Brian Fillis, An Englishman in New York attempts to cover the latter part of the legendary Denis Charles Pratt aka Quentin Crisp's life from his new found fame (following the release of the original TV drama covering his early life, The Naked Civil Servant) and his timely move to New York in 1980 at the age of 72 until his death two decades later. What makes this a truly special filmic event is the return of BAFTA award winner John Hurt playing Crisp once again (33 years on from when he first played him)and allowing the rare chance for an actor to realise the opportunity to play a complete personal history of one character through the years.
Like its 1975 predecessor, John Hurt completely inhabits the character of Crisp, so much so that the realisation for British audiences must be that Hurt's version of Crisp is probably more recognisable to us than the man himself was.  The New York City of the '80's and '90's is vibrantly re-created, and even jaded New Yorkers will feel Crisp's excitement as he walks through his new downtown neighborhood with the excitement of a child in a toy store.   After arriving in NYC, Crisp is befriended by Phillip Steele (played brilliantly by Dennis O'Hare), who becomes his friend for the rest of his life.  He's also soon grabbed by a fast talking agent played by Swoozie Kurtz, always at hand for a comment, his outspokenness occasionally got him into trouble.

A pivotal point in the film comes when Crisp comments about the devastating new disease affecting gay men:
"AIDS is a fad-- nothing more.  Homosexuals are always complaining of one ailment or another."
After that quote, his writing and speaking gigs dry up, and he is attacked both in the media and in person by various members of the community.  The motivation behind that statement remains an enigma to the audience, and probably always will do. Crisp, true to his nature never retracts his statements, yet, he takes under his wing an emotionally fragile young artist (Patrick Angus, played by Jonathan Tucker) who ultimately succumbs to the disease, and toward the end of the film, we learn that Crisp made his contribution to fighting AIDS in less visible ways. Just when the audience suspects that Crisp is going to "retire" from the public eye, a new figure emerges in his life, the dynamic performance artist Penny Arcade.

Ms. Arcade is a close match for Crisp's wit, and soon becomes his new muse as she introduces Crisp to the underground, pansexual, politically-charged, art-meets-nightlife scene that downtown New York City enjoyed in the early '90's.  Cynthia Nixon revels in playing the counterculture diva, expertly capturing Penny Arcade's trademark quirkiness. The "anything goes", pageant/burlesque environment that Arcade and other underground New York City stars created, with a focus on individuality, embrace Crisp as a novelty.  And he clearly enjoys it to the end.

Englishman works on two distinct levels, first as a beautifully fitting tribute to a man who stood for so much and never bowed in the face of adverse opinion. Richard Laxton succeeds in finding a pace that fits the narrative, and rather than rushing headlong from event to event as many lesser directors would do, he allows the story to unfold at an almost organic pace, never once sensationalizing the truth. The original Naked Civil Servant was dark and foreboding in tone, with gritty visuals to match the difficulties of Crisp's early life in an angry and confused homophobic England, with this film Laxton has suffused every frame with an aura of warmth that permeates not only each frame, but also gives the New York of the 1980s an almost "Oz-like" feel in it's golden streets and hopes of it's young inhabitants. Even as the story wends its way into the horrors of AIDS and the epidemic's effect on all aspects of the gay and straight communities, Laxton resists the urge to switch to obvious cinematic colour palettes to reflect the mood, making sure this film is always about Crisp and his eternal optimism (tied to a cynical wit of course).

On a secondary level Englishman is a studied testament to the fractured state of the gay community as a whole.  Where inclusion and segregation seem to go hand in hand, what is perceived to the outside world as a collective cry for inclusion and understanding by the gay community, is often hiding a well hidden micro-society that carries it's own delineations and prejudices.

Hurt is utterly spellbinding, sinking easily back into this colorful and iconic persona with rousing form, at times bearing a startling resemblance to Helen Mirren in her turn as England's other Queen. Laxton smartly frames the film around Hurt's dedicated performance, allowing Crisp to remain the cinematic focus as he was in his own world. Praise needs to also go to Leopard Films and ITV for having the foresight to commission and help realise this important follow up, it may be 33 years since the original, but the importance of Quentin Crisp's message is still as vibrant today as it always was.


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