Love! Valour! Compassion!

(Joe Mantello, USA, 1997)


On the face of it, Love! Valour! Compassion! is not an especially promising film experience.

Adapted by Terrence McNally from his play, handled by a theatrical director making a cautious cinematic debut, this piece is in many respects pure stage-bound schmaltz, of a particularly old-fashioned kind.

Eight men spend three summer holiday weekends together at a large country house; as they pass through the predictable rituals (talking, eating, swimming, partner-swapping), they cathartically face various Big Issues of commitment, ambition and mortality.

Of course, the supposedly new, novel and progressive element in this soufflé is the gayness of all the characters. Yet, even on this plane, the film has a slightly creaky, shop-worn air. These assembled individuals seem like museum pieces from the history of gay art, fiction and film: the brilliant choreographer (Stephen Bogardus); the camp fan of Broadway nostalgia (Jason Alexander); the apparently stable yuppie couple (John Benjamin Hickey and Stephen Spinella); the handsome, young, Latin American stud (Randy Becker); the British outsider in America, aloof and sardonic (this figure comes as a pair – John Glover playing twins).

Only the omnipresent shadow of the AIDS crisis rescues some of these portrayals from complete sit-com banality.

Unlike SubUrbia (1996), Love! Valour! Compassion! falls into familiar pitfalls of stage-to-screen adaptation. A redundant voice-over spells out details that can easily be seen. The setting of the house is never really brought alive through lighting or movement. Many scenes end with dead, flat, awkwardly filmed moments of stillness and silence. And the acting – particularly when Glover appears as the more gregarious twin – sometimes becomes overly declamatory and exhibitionistic, as if pitched to the back stalls of a theatre.

Nonetheless, the characters – as frankly stereotypical as most of them are – manage to be fairly engaging and charming, and their interactions are reasonably sharp. Alexander at first seems simply twittery, but his constant stream of bon mots (on everything from Julie Andrews to Patty Hearst) is winning, and the darker moods that eventually overtake his character are refreshing. In fact, McNally understands well that even the most sentimental and cheeriest of personal reconciliation stories benefits from the presence of an absolutely dark, unnegotiable figure – and here, that figure is John, the 'foul' twin, unmovably isolated and bitter.

© Adrian Martin November 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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