Entertainment » Movies

Against The Law (OUTshine, NewFest)

by Kilian Melloy
Sunday Oct 8, 2017
'Against the Law'
'Against the Law'  

England, the mid-1950s: While most people go about their daily lives unconcerned about the consequences of falling in love, for gays it's a different story. A smile at the wrong person of an intercepted love letter could mean jail time, disgrace, and ruin, as this made-for-British-TV movie -- a hybrid of feature film and documentary -- shows us.

The feature film stars Daniel Mays as real-life journalist and writer Peter Wildeblood, from whose book the teleplay is adapted. Wildeblood happened to fall in love with a corporal from the Royal Air Force named Eddie McNally (Richard Gadd); the pair were drawn into a scheme by fiercely anti-gay law enforcement determined to punish an aristocrat, Lord Edward Montagu (Mark Edel-Hunt), for being gay. A previous attempt at prosecuting Lord Montegu had fallen apart in court thanks to the fabricated nature of the so-called evidence against him. By pressuring Wildeblood and McNally to give up names -- Lord Montegu's among them -- the powers that be intend to get their man for the crime of loving other men.

The unintended consequence of this plot? Wildeblood goes public with his homosexuality, testifies before a commission tasked with looking into the question of de-criminalizing what was, at the time, termed "buggery," writes the groundbreaking book "Against the Law," and helps pave the way for more modern attitudes on sexuality.

It couldn't have been easy. As a collection of gay elder men -- many in their 70s and 80s, some in their 90s -- recall for the camera in the documentary sections, there was a "constant barrage of propaganda" intended to incite public hatred and distrust of gays. The myths and fairy tales told back then were the same as we still hear today, atrocious fictions accusing gays of molesting children and corrupting the morals of the nation. In point of fact -- as both the interviewees in the documentary scenes and Wildeblood himself in testimony before The Wolfenden Committee explain -- it's the persecution of gays that constitutes a morally corrupting activity, discouraging as it does stable relationships and driving gay sex, love, and romance into a volatile underground of secretive and fear-shrouded shadows.

This supreme irony has many levels, and many victims. As an interviewee recalls, he was threatened with rive years in prison after being discovered having sex aboard a ship of the British navy; but if he agreed to name names, he'd only have to serve 12 months. Terrified and cornered, he consented and gave up one of his lovers, a naval officer. After the other man's arrest and suicide, the interviewee confesses, he had to live with intense shame and self-hatred for having been cowed.

Wildeblood, on the other hand, ends up going to trial and then prison precisely because he refuses to name any names. Once released, he makes what may seem like an equally contemptible move in testifying that there are three categories of homosexuals, and throwing femme guys under the bus, while mistakenly lumping pedophiles in with gays. It's straight-acting, discreet gays like himself, Wildeblood declares, that constitute the majority of homosexuals, and if straight-acting gays don't present a "nuisance value" like the femmes do, they should simply be allowed to live in peace.

You want to roll your eyes at this, but it's important to remember the place and time. This was England just after World War II, when gays were subjected to chemical castration and aversion "therapies" that were nothing more than thinly disguised opportunities to inflict torment and humiliation on gays under the aegis of medicine. For Wildeblood to do as much as he did -- and get the general idea across that gays and society alike would be better off if systematic persecution against sexual minorities were ended -- demonstrates his exceptional courage and makes him a hero.

Appearing at OUTshine. For tickets and more information: http://www.outshinefilm.com

Appearing at NewFest. For tickets and more information: http://newfest.org

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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