Amid all the lies, wars, corruption, authoritarianism and disingenuous privatization schemes, it’s easy to forget the things Tony Blair’s New Labour actually got right. In addition to several policy initiatives aimed at improving the state of public health care and education, Labour first and foremost deserves credit for its commitment to social liberalism. The Blair government finally abolished the disgraceful Section 28 law threatening teachers with losing their jobs if they taught about or adviced on homosexuality in school, and the former prime minister himself also was an unrelenting ambassador of modernity and tolerance when it came to LGBT issues. Blair may have been the savior that wasn’t in 1990’s social democracy, but in many ways, Britain still needed him.
I’m reminded of this when watching The Line of Beauty, the television adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize winning 2004 novel. The book has been standing on my bookshelf for years already, and it’s an almost perfect example of why I don’t quite know why I don’t read more fiction over non-fiction (maybe I’m just a simple wonk). It has the juiciness of a social satire, a sense of suspense and something at stake from its underlying AIDS storyline, and best of all, a political angle, portraying the young, self-important yuppies who thrived in Margaret Thatcher’s 1980’s Britain, as least so long as they made sure not to set themselves apart from the mainstream in any provocative way. I still can’t quite explain why I never got further than fifty pages into the book.
Going straight to the movie version instead of working my way through the book may technically make me something of a free-rider, but as we know from experience it’s not always a bad thing to come to a movie without a fixed set of images and expectations. In a somewhat strained parallel, one could even say that my approach to this movie resembles that of Nick Guest’s (played by Dan Stevens) relationship with the Feddens, the upper-class political family of his friend, with whom he is invited to stay; their status may be a short cut to power and money, but it’s not until he takes the time to really get to know them, that their inner contradictions and demons come out. His gay identity may not be something Nick’ necessarily wants to deny, but in the end, it’s his most important personality trait in the eyes of his host family. Translated back to the relationship between a book and a movie, it will always be hard for a movie (even one three hours long) to encapsulate all the intricacies of a novel, and some may write it off simply for the effort, but I nevertheless thoroughly enjoyed it.
One of the things that makes The Line of Beauty so interesting, is that it dares to go beyond it satirical look on Thatcherite Britain. Sure, the obnoxious arrogance that comes with wealth, power and politics still may be good for a few laughs, but pummeling Thatcherism’s relentless individualism is hardly ground-breaking by now. What really hooked me was how it dared to show the consequences of the politically expedient hypocrisy needed to preserve the Fedden’s family political clout, and the Conservative Party’s hold on power. To me, The Line of Beauty is at its core about the danger in accepting tolerance as something that gay people should necessarily strive for. Sure, from a pragmatic point of view tolerance is vastly preferable to downright intolerance or hostility, but it should never be allowed to become the best imaginable position.
My point is that tolerance is nothing more than a poor man’s respect, that leaves all the power to the one showing the tolerance. To tolerate someone does not mean that you accept him as your equal, only that you in your high-mindedness decide to refrain from condemning someone. Also, because tolerance of gays does not require any deeply held conviction that another person’s lifestyle can be just as moral or immoral as your own, it can be withdrawn in an instant, to the detriment of the person being tolerated, but with little or no cost to the person being tolerant. Thus, the concept of tolerance is based upon a very uneven balance of power, and a view of humanity shallow enough to be truly condescending. Therefore, it is a great power tool, because it holds great potential for humiliation, if and when the tolerance is somehow withdrawn. This of course does not mean that I think or demand that people who have come to tolerate gays have to evolve into respect overnight, but I would certainly hope that they don’t believe that their passive tolerance means that that have done all they can.
Which brings me back to The Line of Beauty. The Fedden family only tolerate Nick’s homosexuality as long as it is kept a secret to anyone outside the family, and because it is always dealt with as part of a political calculation with regard to patriarch Gerald’s career as an MP, they never care enough about Nick to ever consider it as a natural part of his identity. By making it something not to be spoken about except for in terms of risk, they also effectively reduce him to his sexuality only, although they pretend it’s not an issue. This has much to do with the aforementioned political climate, in which gayness was condemned in part simply because conservatives (and many liberals and social democrats too, I might add) considered it a perversion, but also because of the mostly repressed issue of HIV/AIDS. Sex scandals may have caused a bit of a stir, but as Nick is poised to find out, there’s a difference between a sex scandal and a sex scandal. If it has anything to do with homosexuality, it doesn’t even to have involve actual sex to be considered scandalous.
This dynamic is the reason why Nick’s looming downfall is so painful to watch. In the end, it turns out, Nick is every bit as much a product of his time as are the Feddens. His mounting self-confidence and his failure (or perhaps refusal) to not pursue his hunger for all things beautiful, be they props or people, ultimately seal his fate. This sense of entitlement could be said to symbolize that very era of radical individualism, and paradoxical disdain for traditional obedience to the greater good. He quickly realizes that as long as he plays the role expected of him – or at least is discrete in veering from the script – he can be an asset to the Fedden family. His charm, eloquence, dazzling beauty and presumed heterosexuality makes him someone the Feddens like to show off as a family friend, which givess him a little bit of leeway, further enhanced by the fact that he is the only person knowing that the MP is having an affair. But he fails to take into account that the Feddens know something about him that could be even more damaging, and that they are in a better position to use it. Being unfaithful to your wife may be bad, but it’s not worse than being a queer.
Within this broader story of class, money, status and hypocrisy however, lies several great subplots. One if Nick’s instant chemistry with Catherine, the Fedden family’s chronically depressed daughter. Disdainful of the family’s political ambitions and something of an outcast herself, she identifies with Nick, because he’s one of very few people in her life that does not first and foremost treat her as suicidal. While she is treated with concern and affection in private settings, like Nick she’s often treated with slight condescension in public, since her depressive tendencies make her a possible ’embarrassment’ to her family. The cynicism of the family’s political ambitions in the end alienates Cat to such an extent that Nick becomes something of an involuntary middleman between Cat and her family, itself playing a role in Nick’s ultimate confrontation with Gerald Fedden.
The Line of Beauty is funny as a satire, and a fascination investigation of how the struggle for power and status invariably fraught with hypocrisy. However, even though it is set in the Thatcherite 1980’s, I can’t help but think about today’s Conservative Party, under the leadership of self-proclaimed modernizer David Cameron. One of his efforts to paint Tories as modern is his outreach to gay people. This guy looks poised to become Britain’s next prime minister after the next general election, and it should be very interesting to see whether Cameron opts for tolerance, or if the Tories are indeed ready to take the leap into genuine acceptance. The Line of Beauty makes it easier to see the difference.
This looks like an interesting movie. I’ve always had a problem with “tolerance” and I believe you’ve explained it nicely here.
Thanks for the heads up on the movie! Now I’m off to work…
It’s a lovely movie, intellectually, visually and stylistically stimulated. Also, I’m pretty much a sucker for period pieces of recent history.