Friday, June 22, 2012

2012 Queer Film Blogathon: Different for Girls (1996)

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Queer Film Blogathon being jointly hosted by Garbo Laughs and Pussy Goes Grrr from June 18-22.  For a complete list of participants and the movies and/or topics discussed, click here.

Kim Foyle (Steven Mackintosh) is taking a taxi to her job at a greeting card company when her cabbie collides with a dispatch messenger and his motorcycle, sending the man to the pavement.  The only thing that seems to be injured is his pride, but both he and the cab driver exchange a few heated words before the messenger, Paul Prentice (Rupert Graves), asks Kim to intervene.  Kim, noticeably nervous about the incident, hurries off because she doesn’t want to get involved.

The reason for Kim’s reticence is that she recognizes Prentice as her best friend from an English boarding school…when he himself was “Karl” Foyle, and before he underwent sexual reassignment surgery to become a woman.  (We get a preview of their past friendship during the opening credits sequence, when Karl is taunted by bullies while taking a shower and Paul comes to his defense.)  Upon finishing her workday, Kim is stunned to find Prentice waiting for her outside the company…he’s figured out where he knows her from.  Their reunion is awkward, but they decide to “make a date” to catch up on old times.

Awkward is very much the watchword in the couple’s efforts to reestablish their friendship.  The date at a restaurant is painfully uncomfortable, and a second encounter at a music club doesn’t go quite as smooth, either—the hotheaded Prentice manages to tick off some hoodlums at the bar…forcing him and Kim to make a skin-of-their-teeth exit.

But the bad date to end all bad dates occurs when Kim invites Prentice over to her flat for dinner…where he reveals that he’s been reading up on the subject of transgender and transsexuality in an effort to understand Kim better, with whom he’s becoming quite fond beyond the initial curiosity and protectiveness.  A discussion about the subject leads to an incident where the inebriated Paul storms out of her apartment building and whips out the old one-eyed trouser snake in public, which brings the police by and gets Prentice arrested for indecent exposure.  When Kim places a hand on one of the officers’ shoulders to try and convince them not to arrest Paul, she is charged with obstructing an arrest.  Thrown into the back of a police van, one of the cops (Rick Warden) isn’t quite sure what to make of Kim (he thinks “he’s” a transvestite) and puts his hand up her skirt expecting to find evidence proving him right.  This prompts Prentice to intervene and stop the groping gendarme…and he receives a beating in the process.

Paul is also charged with assaulting that same officer, and is depending on Kim to back up his story that it was the officer who was responsible…Kim, having endured enough personal pain and embarrassment to last several lifetimes, is hesitant to become involved and would prefer that the matter simply go away.  She arranges to stay at her sister’s (Saskia Reeves) in the meantime to avoid a meeting with Prentice’s solicitor (Lia Williams)…but gradually agrees to do the courageous thing and testify on Paul’s behalf.  Despite all the bumps and bad patches in their courtship, both of them realize that they are emotionally and sexually compatible with one another (“It fits!  It bloody fits!”)…and by the end of Different for Girls (1996), the two are involved in a lovably quirky partnership, described by Kim during her testimony at Prentice’s trial: “Our relationship doesn’t have a precise nature—it never will…all I know is, I don’t know how I’ve done without him.”

Different for Girls, with a title inspired by the classic Joe Jackson song (heard on the film’s soundtrack), gets my vote for one of the most unconventional romantic comedies I’ve seen in the past twenty years.  I came across it a few years back on one of my cable system’s On Demand channels, and found it thoroughly captivating.  Much of the credit for this goes to actor Steven Mackintosh, who is able to overcome what many would consider “stunt casting” with a wonderful, finely modulated performance as Kim.  Jeered and bullied for being effeminate when he was a young man, her determined attempt to make for herself a new life is turned topsy-turvy when “old mate” Paul Prentice suddenly pops back into her life by accident (via an accident).  The two of them are a study in contrasts: Kim is shy and reserved, never needing nor wanting to be the center of attention; while Paul is boisterous and irresponsible (there’s a running gag through out the film in which the motorcycle he uses in his line of work is repeatedly in the process of being repossessed by the finance company).  Rupert Graves, as Prentice, struggles a bit with his role as first because he comes across as so obnoxious in the early scenes of the film you question why Kim would have anything to do with him in the first place.

But it doesn’t take long to see that there is much good in Paul; there’s a lovely sequence where he and Kim have gone back to his flat after the scene at the music club, where they decide to listen to records as they did in the old days.  The two of them end up dancing to Another Girl, Another Planet (by The Only Ones), in a completely captivating scene.  Paul later teaches Kim how to ride a motorcycle, which provides some nice light laughs, and another amusing highlight occurs the morning after the disastrous “first date” when Prentice, clad in his work leathers, stops by Kim’s office at the greeting card company with a bouquet of flowers to apologize for his boorish behavior the night before.  (This results in some stares and tongue-wagging from Kim’s co-workers and her boss—played by veteran character great Miriam Margoyles—who had written their fellow worker off as some sort of wallflower.)

Despite its Cinderella-like romantic comedy trappings, Different for Girls makes an interesting relationship palatable for those who might be put off by the subject matter while ensuring every effort to distinguish the difference between transsexualism and transvestism/homosexuality, succeeding admirably on all counts.  The only problem I have with the film concerns the subplot involving sister Jane (Reeves) and her soldier husband Neil (Neil Dudgeon), who because of his infertility allowed his wife to have a son with another man.  The script by Tony Marchant seems to want to suggest in a ham-handed fashion that the anguish Neil is experiencing about his inadequate seed is comparable to Kim’s gender reassignment; but it comes across every bit as awkward as Paul and Kim’s early courtship dilemmas, and I think the film might have been improved by eliminating that entirely.  But Marchant has a nice ear for dialogue, and Girls contains some wonderfully quotable lines; my favorite occurs at the end of Kim’s testimony when she informs the prosecuting solicitor (Edward Tudor-Pole): “By the way—I may have had certain things removed during surgery, but my eyesight wasn’t one of them…and I know what I saw after he was arrested.”

Directed by Richard Spence, Different for Girls also features a soundtrack with an eclectic performers lineup including Kool Moe Dee and Desmond Dekker and the Aces.  It’s beguiling, and incredibly well-acted…with major props to Mackintosh for his understated performance (he never hits a false note), and a round of cheers for Graves, Margoyles, Reeves and Charlotte Coleman as Kim’s scheming co-worker—a young actress (you might recognize her as the gal who shacked up with Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral) who left us far too soon.  It’s also a permanent part of my DVD library…though earlier this week I thought I was going to have to call an audible for the Queerathon when I misplaced the darn thing.  (Fortunately I ordered a hard target search of my boudoir and found it with seconds to spare.)  Check it out and see if you’re not as taken with it as I was.


Peter Nellhaus said...

I was able to see this theatrically back when it was first released. Great performance by Steven Mackintosh. It especially is remarkable when most filmmakers cheat in having a transexual woman portrayed by a woman, such as Transamerica, even though I do love Felicity Huffman,

R. D. Finch said...

Ivan, I've heard of this movie but never been able to locate it, so I appreciated learning so much about it from your post. I'm a big fan of British movies and TV and recognized many names of the cast members. I first saw Rupert Graves back in "A Room with a View." He was also in "Maurice" as the gay young gardener who seduces James Wilby. He still appears regularly on British TV, recently playing the Inspector Lestrade role in the updated "Sherlock." I also know Steven Macintosh, a wonderfully talented performer who has been acting since his teens He played a sexually ambiguous punk rocker in the "Buddha of Suburbia" mini-series a number of years back and has given many memorable performances since. He's in a new mini-series that just started this week on BBC America. So good to hear more about this intriguing movie and its sensitive depiction of a difficult subject.

Caroline said...

This film sounds really refreshing: a love story between a cisgender man and a transgender woman that doesn't somehow end tragically! I haven't heard much of this one before (hard to know if I recognize the title from the film or the song), but I will definitely be checking it out. Thanks so much for contributing this, Ivan!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

@R. D. Finch: if you have Netflix, Different For Girls is available on streaming. I don't believe it was ever on DVD in Region 1 (and believe me, I looked).

@Ivan: This is a pretty good review, and you didn't even mention the Buzzcocks. For the most part, I don't see what Kim sees in Paul, but what can you do? It's in the script. I have some quibbles with the awkwardness of some of your terminology, but nothing that greatly bothers me.

Yvette said...

At first reading your review, I Ivan, I didn't realize I'd seen this film a while back. But then something rang a bell and I said, wait a sec' I saw this. (Well how many films on this subject could there be?)

I liked it too.

I especially liked Rupert Graves. But then I usually do.

Terrific review.

Page said...

I've never even heard of this film! And I'm not familiar with the leads other than the lovely Coleman that you mentioned.

Your reviews are always funny, honest and informative. You can't get better than that.
Leave it to you to find another gem for a Blogathon.

VP81955 said...

Saw this some years back, and it is indeed charming and wonderfully written. Anyone a bit uneasy about watching it because of the concept, rest assured that it's a tasteful, intelligent film.

Stacia said...

Great review! I have never seen this before, but I really want to check it out now. Sometimes it seems like we're a lightyear away from seeing a cinematic romance like this that doesn't end in a death, so it's encouraging to know it's already been done -- it just needs to keep happening!

Richard Spence also directed some episodes of the Poirot series, which I know because he directed one of my favorites, "Adventure of the Western Star."

shelleybear said...

EAsily the best portrayal of a transwoman that I have seen to this point.
Made more realistic by the Oscar (yes, you heard me) caliber performance of Steven Mackintosh.
The first film to "get it right" (so says the middle-aged pot-op transwoman).
What's so cool is how many folks I know who have seen it clearly feel that there was much more to the main character's story as the film ends.
Recently Hollywood has been looking for properties for TV series that are trans related. I think they couldn't do much better then with an upgrade of this film.