The most successful film featuring a gay (or possibly bisexual) lead character ever at the UK box office was released in 2018. Usually this would be a cause for celebration, but Bohemian Rhapsody is one of the most controversial films of the year. While fears that it would focus too much on Freddie Mercury’s fellow Queen bandmates rather than the lead singer were quashed, it undoubtedly sanitises the more hedonistic side of Mercury’s life, probably to earn it a 12A certificate.
That move doubtless helped it on its way to an impressive box office profit. It teems with inaccuracies regarding Mercury’s personal life, such as how he revealed his HIV diagnosis, and the complexities of the relationship he had with Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), the biopic’s baddie. Rami Malek’s charismatic performance, and the tremendously staged music performances, nonetheless make it one of the most enjoyable films of the year, if not the most honest.
A landmark mainstream film was released in the spring. The trailer for Love, Simon promised an unremarkable, vanilla comedy, whose only point of interest was its status as the first Hollywood teen flick to boast a gay lead. Surprisingly, the resulting film was something quite special, making you root – against the odds – for a privileged, rich, smart and handsome guy with a lot going for him, stress about his sexuality notwithstanding.
A large slice of its charm lies in the endearing performance from Nick Robinson, a fresh and funny script and a lovely, sighing score from Rob Simonsen. It may be a slick, glossy blockbuster, and some may find the black, queer supporting character played by Clark Moore a more intriguing character than its angsty protagonist, but there’s a lot to love. I wish there had been a film like it when I was younger.
It was a good year at the Oscars for LGBTQ+ people, both fictional and real. Last year’s Best Picture winner, Moonlight, may have been more explicitly about a gay character, but 2018’s champion, The Shape of Water, was a far queerer tale, featuring a hero (Sally Hawkins) who falls in love with a sea monster in the early 1960s. A tribute to outsiders everywhere, the film celebrates love, however it manifests itself, with parallels drawn between the main love story and the character of Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay man living in a time of intense homophobia.
Sam Rockwell’s barnstorming performance as the vituperative cop in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, whose character suggested a mild latent homosexuality, deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor award, but it was the Best Foreign Language Film winner that really flew the flag – Chilean melodrama A Fantastic Woman, directed by Sebastián Lelio, surprisingly beat frontrunner Loveless to the prize. Daniela Vega’s performance in the film, as a trans woman who faces a barrage of hate when her lover dies, was unlucky not to be nominated.
Lelio told another tale of queer love under attack in his adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience, about the relationship between Esti (Rachel McAdams), a member of north London’s Jewish community, and Ronit (Rachel Weisz), an exile who returns from the US when her rabbi father dies. It’s an interesting and provocative film – the unusual sex scene has polarised audiences – and boasts strong performances, particularly from McAdams.
Its greatest triumph is capturing the overpowering chill of homophobic oppression within a tight-knit community. The cruelty is emotional rather than physical, yet every shun cuts away at the soul. A different kind of community rejection appeared in Swiss drama Mario, about two professional gay footballers who fall in love and have to make some tough decisions about their future.
A string of excellent independent dramas told more intimate tales of queer lives. A world away from her hilarious comedy debut, Appropriate Behaviour (2014), Desiree Akhavan told a sad, serious tale of repression in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, about a young lesbian (Chloë Grace Moretz) sent to a gay conversion therapy centre (an archaic institution that appears in Boy Erased, due to be released in early 2019). While such organisations have previously been ridiculed in comedies such as But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), Akhavan’s latest quietly shows the huge damage such repression can wreak.
Two American dramas about queer murderers showed some sympathy to their complex protagonists. My Friend Dahmer revealed the makings of a serial killer, as we witness the events that lead up to Jeffrey Dahmer’s first kill. Former Disney Channel star Ross Lynch is a revelation in the role, in a film that is genuinely disturbing, even though no murders happen during its running time.
Going back a century, Chloë Sevigny portrayed Victorian murderer Lizzie Borden in Lizzie, reclaiming the monster of popular imagination as an abused and troubled feminist icon. It’s not perfect – the startling murder sequence has earned as much derision as praise – but Sevigny is very strong.
One of the best performances of the year was Rupert Everett’s portrayal of Oscar Wilde in The Happy Prince. Everett plays Wilde in his later years: exiled, impoverished and nearly friendless following his release from prison. It’s Everett’s best ever performance, all the more impressive given the film is his directorial debut.
Another first-time filmmaker, John Trengove, won acclaim for his South African feature The Wound, about a group of young men who heal after undergoing a Xhosa initiation ritual. In this unique, male environment, love, hate and crises of masculinity rise to the surface. As many of the brief synopses describe the film as a ‘circumcision drama’, blockbuster box office did not ensue. Too bad – it’s a potent and scathing rebuke to archaic views on what it is to be a man.
A couple of London-set films transcended their small budgets to offer new takes on gay urban life. Postcards from London, the closing night film at BFI Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival, presented a neon-soaked Soho on a soundstage, gorgeously illuminating its tale of male sex workers who offer stimulation of the mind, as well as the body.
Anchor and Hope, one of the unsung treasures of the year, spun a tale of lesbian love on the canals of the city, with Natalia Tena and Oona Chaplin starring as lovers living on a houseboat, whose relationship changes when they decide to have a baby. It’s a film with a special kind of magic – I found the couple insufferable in the first few minutes, but they soon won me round through warm, sensitive performances and a strong screenplay. Two moments of scatological humour are weirdly poignant, and there’s a great turn from David Verdaguer as their friend and potential sperm donor.
For me, though, the best film of the year to get a UK cinema release in 2018, queer or otherwise, was Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM. The word ‘masterpiece’ gets thrown around too generously, but this epic portrait of a group of Parisian activists protesting government inaction towards the AIDS crisis is a remarkable achievement. The scenes of debate, as the men and women consider the best ways to convey their message, throb with the thrill of positive change, and Nahuel Pérez Biscayart is brilliant as the fiery lead, an HIV-positive man determined to fight the power to the end.
2019 is already looking like a stellar year for films about LGBTQ+ characters. Rafiki, a Kenyan lesbian love story, banned in its home country, is likely to get a UK release, as is Hard Paint, the winner of the Teddy award at Berlin, a poignant tale of a lonely gay man in Brazil, a country that, sadly, has just elected a poisonously homophobic president. Sauvage, a moving tale of a male sex worker yearning for love, was one of the highlights of this year’s London Film Festival, and has been scheduled for a spring release. Girl, a Belgian drama about a young trans ballet dancer, won the Queer Palm at Cannes and the First Feature Competition prize at the London Film Festival, and will also appear in cinemas in early 2019. In the film’s central role, cisgender actor Victor Polster gives one of the best child performances from the last 12 months.