This movie is based on a play by Julian Mitchell [who went on to write the screenplays for Vincent & Theo and the wonderful Wilde], loosely based on the life of Guy Burgess, who became a Russian spy, and defected to Russia in 1951. He was a member of the "Cambridge Spy Ring," four former Cambridge students [including Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby] who became spies for the KGB. Three of the four were homosexual. If you want to learn more about their stories, CourtTV has a comprehensive article about them here.
This entire spy background would be easy to miss entirely if you didn't already know about it, but it adds a great deal to the meaning of the movie. The movie begins in 1983 Moscow with Rupert Everett in old age makeup playing the elder Guy Bennett being interviewed by a British reporter. The majority of the movie is an extended flashback to an unnamed boys' college in the 30s.
It would seem that homosexuality at the college is rampant, and tacitly accepted, so long as it does not become known. Toward the beginning of the movie, a boy is discovered humping another boy-and ends up hanging himself rather than face expulsion, and the disapproval of his parents. This leads to a renewed crack-down on homosexuality at the school, though the students don't want to stop, and it is widely known that pretty much every student engages in it. It is accepted as just 'part of what boys do,' but the students are expected to give it up and marry a woman upon graduation. What's more, none of these boys are considered truly homosexual, this is just a phase they're going through.
Rupert's Guy becomes aware of the blond Harcourt [Elwes], and pretty much becomes obsessed with him. He is much more forthright with his attraction than any of the other students dare to be, which he plays off through a disdain of the other students and an extremely high queenly attitude. Soon enough he and Harcourt are laying in each other's arms and [presumably] having sex. At this point Guy begins really pushing the system, for example waving in an extremely obvious fashion to Harcourt across the yard, which Harcourt just ignores. Guy seems to be enraged at having to engage in the hypocrisy of pretending like nothing is going on between the boys, when everyone knows perfectly well that it is. He is furious at being punished for merely acknowledging what everyone knows is a fact. He is also highly steeped in the communist beliefs of his friend Judd [Firth], and both of these will combine to strongly foreshadow his conversion to KGB spy after the close of the film.
Toward the end there is a long struggle for power and position at the school. At first Guy is unaffected, as he threatens to expose the homosexual activities of the other students if they dare act against him. But in the end, concrete evidence of his homosexuality is procured and submitted to the headmasters, thus rendering him unable to be promoted to the next ranking in the school's caste. One is left to surmise that the harsh punishment meted out for being unable to play along with the hypocrisy of the system, as well as his immersion in the communist beliefs of his roommate, crystallized into a contempt for his own country which led directly to his ultimate decision to become a Russian spy.
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Rupert Everett is very good. He plays an obnoxious, narcissistic mama's boy, which may lead some viewers [like myself] to not particularly sympathize with him, but this in fact works in favor of the issues the movie is trying to raise. Since I didn't particularly LIKE Guy, I was further forced to examine what the issues of his speaking up or hiding his homosexuality raised, apart from my feelings for him as a person, and what punishment he deserved or did not deserve-ultimately deciding that, obnoxious prat that he was, he didn't deserve what happened to him. This successfully delineates the issue into what degree it is right to expect someone to hide or to expose their homosexuality.
I suspect, however, that the majority of viewers WILL be attracted to Rupert, and will thus have a different experience, much more sympathetic to his side of the story. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with this-if Guy had been played by Sam Elliott, I'm sure I would have been all glassy-eyed sympathy. And by the way, they're not really my type, but if you're into pretty, clean-cut young British men, this film will basically make you cum in your pants.
The most notable film by this director was the hideous adaptation of Less Than Zero, but his direction here is very good. The film begins with a gorgeous and spooky shot traveling under the arch of a bridge over a glassy lake, and throughout one notices interesting geometrical compositions to the shots. Colin Firth is very good, but unfortunately [as became greatly apparent soon after] Cary Elwes can't portray much beyond "dewy."
Anyway, one of the better movies with homosexuality as its theme, as, in addition to being engaging and compelling, it quite successfully draws attention to a central conflict that is expertly dramatized in this situation, and has resonance for gay people everywhere.
If you're gay, yes.