In the early sequences of Englishman, Hurt's Crisp strides through the streets of lower Manhattan, beaming and energetic. In a town full of exhibitionistic outcasts, he is not shunned. New Yorkers gather nightly for his one-man show, in which he unleashes a string of subversive witticisms. But when AIDS devastates the city in the 1980s, Crisp is reviled for his observation that the plague is "a fad"—a comment for which he hesitates to apologize. Soon the same gay men who saw him as a hero stop him in the streets to decry him as a traitor.
At 74 minutes, all of this unfolds quickly. Too quickly. Fortunately, the Crisp character has an arc sturdy enough to hang a performance on, and Hurt gives precisely the rich turn we expect him to deliver—though it must be tiring to speak in an unceasing series of epigrams.
In early sequences, Hurt's Crisp resembles a regal Dame Maggie Smith. In the final scenes, in which he becomes a performance artist under the guidance of Penny Arcade (Cynthia Nixon), he is a shrunken, wizened, yet ever-spry pixie. Still, director Richard Laxton relies a bit too heavily on shorthand measures to telegraph the character's reluctant late-in-life transformation from flippant gadfly to a more politically engaged figure. The costume department adds rainbow flag and "Silence = Death" pins to Quentin's lapel, and all is apparent.
The film's supporting players are left especially adrift by the abbreviated script. Swoosie Kurtz as Crisp's literary rep, Connie Clausen, comes off as a stereotypically hard-bitten agent, then disappears midway through the film. Nixon's Arcade springs up late in the story like an exotic mushroom and has little chance to develop her character.
The men come off slightly better. Jonathan Tucker as doomed painter Patrick Angus is presented as a catalytic character in Crisp's late-in-life transformation. The damp-eyed Tucker is hauntingly memorable, especially in a scene in which he is rebuffed by patrons of a bar—though the dialogue in the film's gay-bar scenes seems somewhat stiff and unbelievable. Denis O'Hare is uncharacteristically subdued as the Christopher Street editor—an amalgam of two real-life figures—who befriends Crisp. But he is mostly stuck playing foil to the protagonist, dropping by to say things like, "You're incredible," or to tsk-tsk about Quentin's hopelessly soiled dishcloths.
At a time when moviegoers regularly complain about scripts that meander for three hours, here's a film that could have benefited from a slower pace of storytelling. Nevertheless, Englishman proves a sturdy-enough bookend for The Naked Civil Servant.
Written by: Brian Fillis
Directed by: Richard Laxton
Starring: John Hurt, Denis O'Hare, Cynthia Nixon, Jonathan Tucker, Swoosie Kurtz