As people look for films to watch on Pride Month, classics like Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight will rightfully make their way to people’s watchlists. But for this post, we’ll be taking a look at six gay-themed films from across the pond. Some of them depicted hopeful narratives involving men in love when it wasn’t commonplace while one film on the list dared to touch on the general topic of homosexuality when it was considered unlawful. From the defiant to the joyous, the following six films on this list given in chronological order paint various pictures of the gay experience before the likes of Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight broke ground for gay cinema in their own respective ways.
Starting off this list is Victim, the very film that discussed the subject of homosexuality when it was deemed unlawful and is also the first British picture in history to even mention the word ‘homosexual.’ Highly controversial during its release, Basil Dearden’s noir thriller came out six years before homosexuality became decriminalized in the United Kingdom. It was also released in the United States shortly before the Hays Code, which banned explicit mentions of queerness in motion pictures, was finally lifted.
At the film’s center is a sublime performance by Dirk Bogarde as Melville Farr, a closeted lawyer caught up in a conspiracy involving blackmail after a former flame of his takes his own life. Even as Melville maintains his composure, Bogarde’s distressed eyes reflect Melville’s constant worry that his career and social standing could vanish in a minute if he’s outed. The high-paced filmmaking by Basil Dearden similarly makes Victim a tense experience.
Victim is available to stream on Max and the Criterion Channel.
Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)
John Schlesinger’s simmering romance pic would be a bit less of an anomaly now than it was when it first came out. As it follows Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch), a gay doctor, and his affair with bisexual artist Bob Elkin (Murray Head), its matter-of-fact depiction of their blissful love was groundbreaking in a time period where gay protagonists were commonly portrayed as tragic, self-loathing figures. Furthermore, it was a step beyond the gay subtext found in Schlesinger’s previous film, the 1969 Best Picture winner Midnight Cowboy.
Thanks to the chemistry between Finch and Head, moments like a simple stroke on each other’s cheeks feel as stimulating as scenes showing physical sex. It’s also worth a watch for Glenda Jackson’s Oscar-nominated performance as Alex Greville, Bob’s divorce consultant partner in the middle of the central love triangle. Jackson is superbly three-dimensional as a woman who’s accepting of her lover’s desire for another man while coping with feelings of isolation when he’s absent.
Sunday Bloody Sunday is available to stream for free on Tubi TV.
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
One could argue that the love scene between Gordon Warnecke and Daniel Day-Lewis alone makes My Beautiful Laundrette worth a watch and they’d be pretty right. But it does thrive on the plot as well as the ‘plot.’ Besides centering on a smoldering romance between an aspiring businessman and his old friend, Hanif Kureishi’s simplistic, Oscar-nominated screenplay uses the titular laundrette as an emblem of racial and class divide in Thatcher-era Britain. Once Omar (Gordon Warnecke) and Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis) start managing the laundrette owned by Omar’s uncle as they try forming a better life for themselves, they must face growing tensions with Johnny’s gang of punks who continuously hang outside the building.
Similar to the following film on the list, My Beautiful Laundrette is conscious of the cruel, hateful world that people like Omar and Johnny must navigate while, without spoiling anything, opting to end on a promising note. Thanks to its intricate writing, occasionally auspicious tone, and yes, the steamy love scene between its two leads, My Beautiful Laundrette is a queer classic for the ages.
My Beautiful Laundrette is available to stream on Max.
While Sunday Bloody Sunday would feel less anomalous if it came out now, even today, James Ivory’s masterpiece Maurice remains a rarity of its kind: A melodic romance between two men within a period piece setting. Although it acknowledges the prejudice of the time period it takes place in, Maurice isn’t entirely a morose chronicle. It allows its title character to go on a tuneful path towards self-acceptance while possessing complete sexual agency. Since such a story was released at the height of the 1980s AIDS crisis, that made Maurice all the more revolutionary.
Maurice is available to stream on Mubi and Kanopy.
Edward II (1991)
A director/activist whose trademarks were frank depictions of gay desire and making unorthodox period pieces, the late, great Derek Jarman successfully blends the two with the historical drama Edward II. Based on the titular monarch’s life, Edward II follows his romantic bond with his favourite Piers Gaveston (Andre Tiernan) which caused a disruption in the royal kingdom. The film is expertly stylized as it blends actors in period and modern clothing while also possessing a profound sadness. Particularly, during a scene with Annie Lennox performing a heart-rending cover of Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” Lastly, it features a killer villainous turn from Tilda Swinton, who won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at Venice, as Queen Isabella of France.
Edward II is available to stream on the Criterion Channel, Tubi TV, Pluto TV, and Freevee.
Beautiful Thing (1996)
Beautiful Thing, which is based on the play of the same name by screenwriter Jonathan Harvey, is indeed just that. It’s a harmonious coming-of-age tale about two teenage boys, Jamie (Glen Berry) and Ste (Scott Neal), from a working class part of London falling in love accompanied by the upbeat compositions of Mama Cass. Given how it was released while England was under the influence of Section 28, a former anti-LGBT law that banned discussions of homosexuality of public schools and funding of artistic depictions of queerness, the film’s simple story served as an act of political defiance.
Even today, Beautiful Thing would feel like a form of rebellion against politicians proposing anti-LGBTQ legislation. Politicians like demon-in-human-form Ron DeSantis who’s peddled the “Don’t Say Gay” bill which, similar to Section 28, prohibits discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools. As queer people like myself move forward in a world threatened by our mere existence, Beautiful Thing serves as necessarily sanguine affirmation. A reminder of those close to us willing to lend a helping hand in this cruel world and how love no matter who it may be with can indeed be a beautiful thing.
Beautiful Thing is available to rent on Prime Video, Google Play, YouTube, and Apple TV.