Another Country

April 15, 2011

The other country referred to in the title of Another Country is both a real and an imagined place. The story is a fictionalized version of the school days of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who spilled British secrets to the Soviet Union into the 1950s, and who relocated to Moscow when the scandal broke. So in one way, the title nods to their eventual displacement.

But in a more important way, the other country that Burgess and Maclean (they’re called Guy Bennett and Tommy Judd in the movie) inhabit is the land of outsiders. Both are already living in another country during their school days, because they each have a passion that forces their isolation.

Bennett (Rupert Everett) is homosexual, which in itself is not uncommon at this school. Many of the boys are engaging in clandestine sexual activity, but with the attitude that they’re going to shut up about it, and pass through the phase eventually. Bennett, however, doesn’t see it as a phase; and he has a tendency to sit in windowsills, strike soulful poses, and declare his love for the boy who lives across the courtyard (Cary Elwes)—to anyone who will listen.

His hurtful flamboyance—well played by Everett—gets him into inevitable trouble. But he has the bemused sympathy of Judd (Colin Firth), who is an outsider himself because of his devotion to Marxism, and his oft-stated contempt for the bourgeois system. And he and Bennett share the habit of talking when they should probably keep quiet.

The movie is all about these formative school years, so don’t expect a spy yarn. The setting becomes a wee bit static (the movie was adapted by Julian Mitchell from his stage pay), but not annoyingly so.

The only real problem is that the movie’s main idea—that Bennett is politicized by the failure of the system to accommodate his social crisis—is a bit obviously stated. There’s not too much under the surface, and you get the impression that the author had his single theme to communicate, which he does single-mindedly.

But the film saves itself through the grace of the production design, the fine form of the actors (among other things, it’s a funny movie), and the crucial flashback structure that Mitchell has given the story.

Another Country is framed by brief sequences of an aging Bennett being interviewed in Moscow in the present. This device, as we see Bennett looking rather lost among the cold surroundings of Soviet life, and wistfully missing his beloved cricket matches, adds a layer of ruefulness that the film would not otherwise have.

We learn that Judd died fighting in the Spanish Civil War, which means he was spared the spectacle of his high hopes coming to naught in the Soviet Union. Poor Bennett is left to face the bittersweet legacy of their school years in the manner to which he is accustomed—alone.

First published in the Herald, June 18, 1984

Bennett is closer to Burgess than the film’s Judd is to any literal model; I think Judd is more of a composite of the Cambridge spies-to-be, rather than a straight take on Maclean. I mighty also note, pace my final paragraph, that the fictional Judd could easily have become disillusioned in the great Soviet experiment by the time of the Spanish Civil War. In any case, the story of the Cambridge spies is inexhaustible; for a companion piece, the Alan Bennett-scripted, John Schlesinger-directed An Englishman Abroad is a real gem, with a splendid performance by Alan Bates as Burgess. Another Country was much beloved in Seattle at the time, being the kind of movie that is much loved in Seattle.