It’s a fine thing, in the larger world, that Bent (Goldwyn) has outlived the novelty of its subject matter. But it’s a bum thing in the realm of filmmaking. When Martin Sherman’s brutal, effectively depressing stage play about a love affair between two men imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp premiered in 1979, the production won awards and broke ground: It was the first time many theatergoers heard about the Nazis’ persecution of homosexuals, or of the significance of the pink triangle, pinned on gay prisoners the way that Jews were forced to wear yellow stars.
In the 18 years since, however, the pink triangle has become a familiar emblem of gay activism. Ian McKellen (who starred in the London production and makes a sharply drawn cameo appearance in the film) and Richard Gere (who starred on Broadway) have solid international careers. Aspects of homosexuality have found artistic expression in films as daring as Paris Is Burning, as jolly as In & Out. But this spare, highly styled screen adaptation — the movie debut of inventive theater director Sean Mathias — feels dispiritingly out of synch and torpid.
None of this is the fault of Lothaire Bluteau and Clive Owen, the talented actors (Canadian and British, respectively) who play the wretched prisoners, clinging to (and, indeed, strengthening) their sexual identities in the face of unbearable daily existence. (Their job is to move rocks from one pile to another, Samuel Beckettishly.) But even Mathias’ innovations, such as staging the first act — when Berlin nightlife was a cabaret, old chum — in an abandoned power station, fails to freshen up Bent‘s dated kitsch and bathos.
What does enliven the gloom, however, is Mick Jagger, dolled up in black curly wig and scarlet lipstick as a nightclub-owning drag queen who sings about Berlin and pretty boys with eyes like oceans. Jagger himself has eyes here like Charlotte Rampling. He’s a welcome flash of rock glamour in a play bent low with age. C+