Thirty years ago Martin Sherman 's 'Bent' first appeared on Broadway starring none other than Richard Gere in the lead, becoming one of the first examples of Holocaust literature that focused not on the persecution and genocide of the Jews under Hitler's demonic control of Germany, but on other liminal groups who were also put to work and to death in camps dotted around the Nazi party's illegal European empire.
This movie version of Bent then, directed by Sean Mathias is the screen adaptation of Sherman's stage play- written again by Sherman- about the persecution of homosexuals at the hands of Nazis in Germany, starring Clive Owen, Lothaire Bluteau, and featuring cameo appearances by Sir Ian McKellen, Jude Law, Paul Bettany and Rupert Graves. It is available now to buy on duel format released Blu-ray and DVD from Park Circus, after some 13 years.
It is undoubtedly important, and its message grave and resonating, but is it really any good? Read on for the full review...
I would hate to think that Bent would ever be considered only for its importance rather than its actual quality, even despite the weight of the subject matter and the rather sombre tone that endures throughout, because to take such an approach is to reduce a film to its basest components and then ignore 90% of its facets. But, Sherman's play did represent an invaluable development in the literature of the Holocaust, which had previously almost been monopolised by the tragic treatment of the Nazi's Jewish victims, without passing a great deal of comment on the other persecuted groups, so to that end, Mathias' film does represent an important change in the filmic literature of the harrowing events of the Holocaust.
It is also important that Bent is not only considered a gay film. Too many movies are classified in that manner and end up being restricted in their appeal to broader audiences because of some perceived stigma, which is an incredibly limiting way to view film categorisation. Personally, no matter what the subject matter, I don't believe that a film should ever be classified as in the "gay genre", as it merely furthers the idea of difference that underpins every bigotted argument ever conceived. Okay, so there are gay characters in the film, why should that automatically over-ride all other generic considerations? It just seems very limiting...
Anyway, when judged in purely cinematic terms Bent is not exactly great. Director Mathias is a famed stage director, and it seems failed to substantially bridge the gap between stage tecnhiques and screen ones, leaving an erratic mish-mash of scenes, inconsistent in aesthetic and an oddly hollow lead performance by Clive Owen. Cynics might suggest that that is in fact Mr Owen's inimitable style when "acting", but in this case, such an evaluation may be a little harsh, as Owen's Max feels a lot like a character without sufficient direction.
It is Mathias' lack of finesse in establishing a visual feel for his film that endures as the most difficult obstacle for Bent's success - his editing nouse, especially in the opening sequences smacks of a lack of experience. While stage direction is all about what the audience can see, screen direction is often about what they do not see- so editing and clever filming techniques have to imply the passage of time in a far less tangible manner than stage productions while establishing what the audience are supposed to think of certain characters.
And probably as a direct result of Mathias' short-comings and technical finesse aside, the quality of the subject matter becomes a little tainted as well. While Sherman's play was incredibly affecting, and flecked with touching moments, its power was more in its message about persecution than in its overall quality: and when translated by Mathias to the screen without the kind of finesse that perhaps another auteur would have given it, it is the limitations of the original play and not its qualities that are emphasised. On stage, Bent is as sparse and affecting as a Samuel Beckett, but when afforded the added gloss and production values of the screen it simply doesn't translate- the power of the play's message depended on a sparsity and abstraction that the film just cannot give it without not working as a film. Take the dialogue: when heard on an almost empty stage it no doubt assumes that pseudo - Beckettian gravitas I mentioned as key to getting the symbolism of the play to resonate but at the final analysis the film's realistic setting simply undermines that symbolism and the dialogue ends up feeling over-stylised and somehow hollow.
Of course the film is out to shock- from the title through to the appearance of a dragged up Mick Jagger swinging from a chandelier, Bent sets out to assault the viewers' senses in order to carry the weight of its message. But thankfully, and despite the grim subject matter, the film chooses to focus less on producing a lurid, harsh re-creation of the Holocaust for the sake of pornographifying the events, and instead sets about portraying a more existential view of it. There is no perversely graphic recreation of the Nazi camps, or the obligatory shock imagery that such a generic choice often precipitates in even the most disciplined film-makers, Mathias concentrates on the human psychological reaction to atrocities and how it endures.
And as a portrait of the psychological effect of persecution, the film has some value. In flashes Owen is good as the haunted lead, in love with a fellow prisoner, even if his all-round performance is lacking, and he does an admirable job in the second half- when the tone gets a lot more claustrophobic and the idea of the psychology of persecution is far more invested in- of carrying the weight of the film's message. Owen and indeed his fellow lead Lothaire Bluteau manage to instil a certain loaded intensity to their characters, but their skills simply cannot counteract the essential implausibility of a drama that demands emptiness and abstraction for its symbolism to resonate.
Overall, it is a case of a project's power being lost in translation between mediums. While it is definitely powerful, and occasionally touching.
Bent is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Park Circus.