The first scene of Different for Girls is both lyrical and chilling--a teenage boy (Stephen Walker) showers in a school locker room, posed like a Raphaelite statue, with his genitals tucked out of sight. Classmates, fully clothed, approach him through the steam and begin to harass him, until another boy (Blake Ritson), this one bigger and tougher, comes to his rescue and chases the bullies off. The victim smiles up at his deliverer in gratitude, the other kid smiles back, and for a second it looks like they're going to kiss. The rest of the movie is about how these two finally manage to get to that first kiss.
Both of them, problematically enough, are straight, but that little problem is excised during the decade and a half that passes under the opening title. The bather, Karl, stops tucking, has some trimming done, and is redubbed Kim (Steven Mackintosh). Now a successful composer of greeting-card verse, Kim is riding in a London cab one day when it collides with a leather-clad courier on a motorcycle.
The cyclist is unhurt, and what's more, he's Kim/Karl's old defender from school, Paul Prentice. And what's more than that, he's grown up to be played by Rupert Graves. Well done, lad.
Prentice is a wild boy, a head-banging punker. You expect the film, first, to show his realization that the quietly poised Kim used to be his old friend, and then, by slow degrees, to coax the two into love with each other. But the degrees aren't slow--Prentice recognizes Kim at once, and wastes no time in asking her out, then offending her, then apologizing, then repeating the process. Director Richard Spence and screenwriter Tony Marchant rush the characters through all of it so quickly that they're left with more than an hour to kill.
So we're given a clumsy, slapped-together plot about a run-in the two have with the police, and a couple of irrelevant subplots are squeezed into the film's margins. What we aren't given, sadly, are filled-out characterizations. What was the basis of Prentice and Karl's relationship back when? Why does Prentice push so hard for a relationship with Kim now, despite her reticence, and his own discomfort over the idea of sex with her?
There's nothing very wrong with the acting. Mackintosh is fairly wonderful, actually. He pulls off the technical-stunt aspect of the performance impressively--you never for a moment doubt that he's had the operation--but he also gives Kim more substance and sympathy than there is in the role as written. Graves rather plainly was looking for a change of pace after all the upper-crust dreamboats he's played, so he digs into this reckless working-class whirlwind with relish, and he's likable.
Director Spence has a fussy, pictorial style. This gives him some effective moments, like the aforementioned prologue sequence, or a beguiling moment when the camera circles Prentice and Kim and then rises above them as they dance. And the scene in which the two finally get down to sex is expertly staged, and startlingly erotic. Yet these good scenes stand out, in part, because Spence's visual sense is cold and static in general.
When, belatedly, Prentice is given a few lines to explain himself--he's just a rebel, it seems, and he'll never be any good--it sounds like what it is: half-assed. The idea that a straight man can fall in love with a transsexual or a transvestite because she is, in his mind, a woman, is no longer daring subject matter. What Different for Girls hints at, but does not explore, is a theme that could have been: that Prentice desires Kim because he always desired Karl. It's a fulfillment of the wish to make love to your best same-sex friend with heterosexual impunity. That's a real subject, but Different for Girls chooses not to go there.
Different for Girls
Directed by Richard Spence; with Steven Mackintosh and Rupert Graves.
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