Formative years: Another Country (Marek Kanievska, 1984)

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If Another Country seems like the backstory for a John le Carré character, this speaks to that author’s espionage experience and knowledge: the film is based on the life of Guy Burgess, one of the Cambridge Five Soviet spies. Adapted by Julian Mitchell from his own play, it stars Rupert Everett as Guy Bennett, who’s coming to realise he’s not going to grow out of his attraction to other boys. Meanwhile, his Marxist best friend, Judd (Colin Firth), longs for an uprising against the British class system, and their school is unsettled by the suicide of another homosexual student.

Another Country verges on being a slight film, based more on picturesque settings and an attractive cast than anything else. The pace is slow and the story feels play-like, not just because it’s talky, but because its progression and resolution rely more on dialogue than action.

What saves the film, however, is the broader-reaching implications of the characters’ actions. Where these schoolboys remain loyal, compromise their ideals, tread upon others to get their way, or choose to simply conform, they’re clearly displaying the behaviour they’ll carry into their political and beaurecratic careers. When Guy blackmails the students he’s had liaisons with, he’s even fulfilling the fears surrounding closeted homosexuals in the Cold War. These students are Britain’s future.

Guy initially has no interest in Marxism. He’s a selfish character who only turns on Britain when he realises it won’t accept him. Judd is the one who wants to overturn the status quo; his arc is about realising where to be less rigid. He and Guy make for a complementary pair; Guy’s romance with Harcourt (Cary Elwes) has far less depth. Everett superbly captures Guy’s weak and soulful qualities, but Firth (shockingly young) all but steals the film with his dry humour.

The myth of Max Schreck: Shadow of the Vampire (E. Elias Merhinge, 2000)

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Shadow of the Vampire is a film about film that manages to be both playful and cerebral. It gives a fictional retelling of F. W. Murnau’s making of Nosferatu, drawing on the myth that unconventional leading man Max Schreck was himself a vampire.

The film is grounded in its performances. The supporting cast is an eclectic bunch, including Udo Kier, Catherine McCormack, Cary Elwes and Eddie Izzard. The real draw, however, is the two stars, John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe; they are given dream roles as Murnau and Schreck, respectively. Malkovich’s particular strain of intense fervour is well suited to Murnau. Dafoe has the more difficult task, acting from beneath transfigurative makeup whilst wearing a corset and platform shoes. He is contorted towards resembling Schreck’s Orlok, but Dafoe embodies the character in his own way. His movements and expression are mesmerising whenever he’s onscreen, to comedic, tragic and horrific affect. He received a Best Actor in a Supporting Role Oscar nomination for his performance.

Shadow of the Vampire is reverential of Nosferatu even while deconstructing it. Snippets of the original film appear, blending into Merhinge’s as though affirming Murnau’s dream of creating something eternal. Certain scenes from Nosferatu are recreated, vividly and with affection. Many other scenes show Murnau at work, which brings to life the process of creating silent film.

Film as an art form is Shadow of the Vampire‘s central concern, but the viewer many simply be wondering if Schreck really is a vampire, or if he and Murnau are just deluded. The revelation occurs in the midst of the truly unpredictable final scene. It’s a thrilling conclusion that casts the film in a different light, and demands that the viewer question and think about what they’ve seen here.