Top positive review
28 people found this helpful
Low fidelity account of Isherwood's memoirs
on 2 April 2011
There is one aspect of Christopher And His Kind which none of the Amazon customer reviews has touched on, namely its relationship to the book of memoirs on which it's supposedly based. I first read the book some thirty years ago having purchased the paperback after reading some enthusiastic reviews, although my only experience of Isherwood until then was having viewed the movie versions of I Am A Camera and Cabaret. I'd forgotten just about everything in the book but after watching this BBC production, and having on the whole enjoyed it, I decided to dust down my yellowed paperback and read it once again. This TV production covers roughly the first half of the book, the Berlin years, and the first thing to strike me was the amount of compression that is perhaps inevitable when you're constrained by a 90 minute time slot. I couldn't help feeling that the Berlin years and some of the events immediately thereafter would easily have filled three one hour episodes with no loss of interest. The second thing to strike me was that this production was not particularly truthful to the events described in the book, the script writer embroidering Isherwood's reminiscences with the author's fictionalised version of events and characters from his Berlin novels. Jean Ross, for example, the inspiration for the exhuberant Sally Bowles, is quite a minor character in the book and there is no indication that she was a cabaret singer or anything resembling Liza Minnelli, rather she comes across as a sort of leftist free spirit. Sally Bowles is essentially a literary and cinematic creation and it's Sally Bowles rather than Jean Ross that you get in this BBC production. There are frequent tweaking of characters and events. Heinz, serious boyfriend number three, is first spotted by Isherwood sweeping the streets although this is not mentioned in the book. And Heinz is described in the book as having no close family but is portrayed in this film as living with a tubercular mother and a pro-Nazi brother. It was in fact boyfriend number two, Otto, who had the tubercular mum but neither Otto nor serious boyfriend number one, Bubi, appear in the film, being replaced by an invented boyfriend called Caspar. Isherwood later bumps into Caspar dressed as a Brownshirt ejecting customers from a Jewish-owned department store although in the book Isherwood merely says that it was one of the former rentboys from the gay bars. In the book, Isherwood doesn't meet Gerald Hamilton for the first time on a train, an event clearly borrowed from the novel Mr Norris Changes Trains in which Isherwood transformed Hamilton into Arthur Norris and there is no indication in the book that Hamilton was into sado-masochism. There are many other omissions, deviations and borrowings. The film, in truth, is a rather sly mix of fact and Isherwood's fiction loosely based on fact, but I realise that entertainment values are always a prime consideration in TV productions of this kind and a Jean Ross who resembles the fictional and cinematic Sally Bowles is probably what audiences want to see, and an ex-boyfriend who morphs into a Brownshirt and a Gerald Hamilton who enjoys a good flogging from a rentboy are more likely to keep your interest from flagging.
On the debit side, the film's evocation of early 1930s Berlin is not particularly convincing. I understand that many scenes were shot in Ireland, perhaps a tight budget precluded shooting in eastern European locations. And when Isherwood visits his old Berlin haunts twenty years later no one seems to have aged much (just sticking a moustache on Heinz to transform him from 17 to 37 won't do.) Matt Smith does a passable job as the young Isherwood and the supporting cast is top notch. I particularly liked Lindsay Duncan as Isherwood's snobby mum, clearly aware that she is a stultifying influence on her sons but blithely ploughing on regardless (in the book she's depicted rather more sympathetically); and Toby Jones is wonderfully seedy as the rather shifty Gerald Hamilton, although in the book Hamilton comes across as a far more complex character, a wheeler-dealer with a fascinating history who manages to diddle Isherwood out of the then enormous sum of £1000.
Despite the film's dodgy adherence to the events related in Isherwood's book I felt it was quite successful in preserving the spirit of his Berlin years and I enjoyed it as a piece of entertainment. I only regret that the filmmakers weren't more ambitious with this project and that the producton values weren't a tad higher.