It was with some mild trepidation that I sat down to watch the one off special ‘Christopher and His Kind’ on BBC2 last night. Starring Matt Smith and based upon the autobiographical book of the same name, the film depicts the life of the author Christopher Isherwood during his time in Berlin prior to the Second World War. Having not been over enamoured with Smith’s portrayal of the current ‘Doctor’ I was unsure as to how well this was going to play out. Sure he has the credentials for playing the stuffy public school boy role, but playing in a far more serious plot could take some convincing.
My initial thoughts were that the BBC would probably go some way to ‘censor’ a lot of the content, in order to protect the image of one of their biggest prime time, family targeted stars yet this concern was laid to rest quite promptly with gusto. At this point I applaud the BBC for taking this course of action and not shying away from placing one of the biggest stars in this kind of role with this level of graphic sexual behaviour but it did feel as if this course of action was intentional. Perhaps a little too intentional if I am honest.
Dotted throughout the 90 minute one-off special were several sex scenes that left little to the imagination. When well acted, an intense sex scene can really add to the plot but in this case it all seemed remarkably forced. Each and every opportunity showed gay sex and even kissing as being animalistic and rough. It was all very ‘ram it on in’. Even when Isherwood was apparently deeply in love there lacked any real intimacy between him and his partner. Granted, the love was one sided from Isherwood’s perspective, since the character of Casper, played by Alexander Doetsch, was merely a rent boy doing his job to the highest level. It could be argued that since Casper was being paid for his affection there would be very little in the way of sensual intimacy and the relationship would have been more lust than love. It certainly didn’t help that even the intensity was poorly dramatised and left the whole thing feeling soulless and without any passion, particularly the kisses. They looked more like they were trying to chew each other's face off as appose to an intense, heated and passionate kiss. This type of pornographic angle is very much the way in which TV all too often portrays sex with an over the top nature, regardless of whether it is straight or gay.
With the introduction of the character Heinz, portrayed by Douglas Booth, comes Isherwood’s real love. I hoped that Smith would be show a different side, but again, there was no real intimacy shown and Smith seemed to struggle in capturing this love on screen. There was very little in the way of suggesting that there was a strong relationship between the two men. I simply wasn’t buying into the love between them and it was all incredibly false.
This was not the only falseness about the film either. I found that the majority of the cast invariably came across as over-egging the upper class English accent. Think Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins but playing the opposite end of the spectrum. It seems all too easy for these period dramas to go for the upper-class British toff but there is always the frequent danger of falling into caricatures.
Each of the performers fell in to this caricature periodically but it did work incredibly well for the actress Imogen Poots playing Jean Ross who was the inspiration for Isherwood’s character of Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli in Cabaret :-P). It felt totally plausible that Jean Ross was a woman pretending, quite awfully, to be of an upper-class background. Poots’ portrayal of Jean Ross was very well executed and she effortlessly managed to play the part of a woman acting the part of something she is not, convincingly and with clarity.
It is worth noting that the historical accuracy and referencing was very well executed throughout and it handled the issues surrounding the growth of the Nazi Party and its effect on Berlin very well.
Despite my critisms of this production it has, none the less, stimulated an interest in Isherwood none the less. I certainly want to go away and learn more about the writer and his work. If this was the intention of the film then it succeeded, and I was able to come away having found some positive qualities.