Not every schoolboy at Eton becomes a Russian spy like Guy Burgess. Why, then, did this celebrated defector turn against his crown and country to seal himself from everything he knew and live the rest of his life in exile?
Another Country, the probing, disturbing film by Julian Mitchell adapted for the screen from his smash-hit London play, attempts to explain. For jaded filmgoers looking for something different, it’s well worth investigating.
No reference is made to Guy Burgess by name, but the implications are obvious.
The film begins in 1983 in Moscow, where a journalist is interviewing the now elderly, placid man called Guy Bennett (brilliantly played by the astonishing young British actor Rupert Everett, who recreates his stage success).
In the course of the interview, Bennett tells the story of his 1932 school days, and how a young man of class and breeding became an outlaw figure in the school establishment.
These were the days when being “different,” or a nonconformist of any kind – whether homosexual or political – was to elect derision and social ostracism over popularity and acceptance.
The film takes a chilling look at the way England’s public schools (what Americans call private or prep schools) distort and adversely shape the lives of the upper classes at a very early age.
The hallowed halls where the seeds of treason are sown are a hellish hotbed of paranoia and fear. We never see the classrooms or the teachers. Order is imposed on the weaker boys by the older and most ruthless students. To qualify for rank and privilege, boys must succumb to bullying, beating, and the petty tyrannies of an adolescent society in which homosexuality plays a carefully circumscribed role.
Young Bennett (or Burgess, as the case may be) is in the catbird seat until his passion for a younger boy subjects him to so much pain, hypocrisy, and emotional blackmail that he surrenders to the Marxist philosophy of his only chum and supporter, a brilliant fellow student convincingly played by Colin Firth.
The point is that the road to Moscow is already paved with English hypocrisy and public school vice-a case made very persuasive by the intelligent script, the stifling atmosphere, and the excellent ensemble work of a faultless cast.
Everett is properly arrogant and sardonic without being fey, Firth is outstanding as the token leftist, handling a mouthful of Marxist propaganda with vigour and assurance, and Cary Elwes, as Everett’s young lover, makes a confused adolescent forced into an emotional situation beyond his years both human and attractive.
There are problems. For a film in which passion plays such a vital part, there is precious little of it. The best scene in the film is the one that shows the two boys getting tenderly drunk together in a posh restaurant off campus and half confessing their mutual affection.
The rest of the time we must sympathise only because of what the characters say – We never actually see how they feel.
To make problems worse the boys aren’t really very likeable in the first place. They all grasp ruthlessly, self-servingly for power.
These reservations aside, Another Country gives an extraordinarily informed view of how “playing the game” is required of the British upper classes both at school and in life, and how covering one’s true feelings is really “doing the decent thing.”
It has fire and inspiration and it smacks of the truth.
Adrian Ross Magenty