The new South African drama by director Oliver Hermanus, starring Deon Lotz, Charlie Keegan and Michelle Scott, is attractive in name only. The reality of Beauty (Skoonheid, 2011) is a sordid and depressing tale, which only serves to reinforce stereotypically held views about the gay community, and those unable to admit the truth of their sexuality.
François (Lotz) is a middle-aged man living in Bloemfontein, South Africa. On the face of it he is successful and happily married to Elena (Scott). However, as so often is the case, the reality is very different from the carefully constructed outer façade. François leads a hidden double life which comes to a tragic climax after he meets Christian (Keegan), the son of some old family friends.
Films which approach homosexuality as a serious subject matter for dramatic entertainment are entering a sensitive area. They frequently (though not always) fall into two areas – that of gay erotica (which, if honest, is really just tasteful porn), or something which only plays up to the outsider’s view that the gay world is peopled by older men who cruise seedy, late night haunts for young guys to get their end away with.
Beauty, which was widely praised on its cinematic release and entered as South Africa’s official submission in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 84th Academy Awards, had the potential to be a moving and poignant depiction of self acceptance and the frustrations and affects deep-seated emotions can have on family relationships. Instead what we get is a languid picture of a withdrawn individual – depicted, admittedly, with impressive moodiness by Lotz – whose inability to cope with his dormant urges only serves to push him further away from those who love him, without bringing him any closer to the object of his secret fantasies.
Lotz aside the film’s most striking performance comes from Scott. The emotion she brings to François’ long-suffering wife Elena is intensely moving and one of the best things in the film. The other most memorable aspect are the muted tones the film is shot in, bringing it an added sense of overall depth. Hard to view and ultimately disappointing, Beauty is nevertheless worth seeing if only as a warning against heterosexual prejudices and the human inability for self-expression and acceptance.
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