Spies Among Us: ANOTHER COUNTRY (1984)

“And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.”

– I Vow to Thee, My Country, by Sir Cecil Spring Rice & Gustav Holst, 1921

In the early 1930s, a group of upper-class British university students were recruited as Soviet spies. Today they’re referred to as the Cambridge Five although it’s likely that their numbers were much larger. At the time that they became Soviet sympathizers, Britain and Russia were still allies but the United Kingdom was facing a monumental crisis. Millions were jobless and the economy was in the throes of a deep depression while imperialism and fascism were on the rise. The Cambridge Five responded by embracing Marxism, championing the working classes and opposing fascism, which was particularly rampant within the privileged social circles they traveled in. But times changed and as WWII erupted the alliance between Britain and the U.S.S.R. began dramatically shifting and morphing according to the winds of war. The spies were eventually found out and between 1950 and 1980 their crimes made headlines. The news stunned the British public and sent shockwaves through the establishment. What compelled these sons of fortune to adopt Marxism and become spies for Russia? Another Country (1984) scrutinizes the autocratic British school system that may have emboldened their betrayal of king and country.

The film is directed by Marek Kanievska (Less Than Zero [1987], Where the Money Is [2000], A Different Loyalty [2004]) and based on an award-winning stage play by the gay screenwriter Julian Mitchell (Arabesque [1966], Vincent & Theo [1990], Wilde [1997]) that presents a fictional portrait of what life might have been like for the Cambridge Five during the 1930s when they were young men enrolled in exclusive British boarding schools. Mitchell, who was educated in a similar manner, followed the case of the Cambridge Five closely after discovering that one of the spies (Anthony Blunt) had lived in his neighborhood. He was particularly drawn to the stories of Blunt and his co-conspirator Guy Burgess who were both gay at a time when homosexuality was legal in Russia but illegal and punishable by law in Britain.

“Everyone said how it was easy to be a communist in the 1930s — the hunger marches, the unemployment, etc. — but there’s a huge difference between being left-wing and actually wanting to betray your country. Blunt was an absolute lizard, but I thought all the journalists missed something. I thought that the roots of this betrayal might be found in public-school life. They didn’t make the connection between the gayness and the treason … The system allowed bullies to get power and they could make people’s lives horrible … I based it on my fury and anger and I wrote it fast and it flowed.” 

– screenwriter Julian Mitchell, 2014 interview The Spectator

Mitchell’s plot pivots around two young students, Guy Bennett (Rupert Everett) and his friend Tommy Judd (Colin Firth), attending an elite boarding school for boys age 13-18. Bennett is openly gay and longs to belong to a group of upperclassmen known as ‘Gods’ who reign over the other students and wear fancy waistcoats while Judd is an unrepentant Marxist who carries a bust of Lenin and spouts ideology from Das Kapital. Both boys are outspoken and unruly outsiders who ignore school rules and denounce war, although their curriculum includes military training. The school itself is beautiful and timeworn, set among grassy fields and charming waterways, but it’s a breeding ground for tyranny where bullies and sadists rule the roost. Competitive cricket matches and angelic church choirs provide some distraction but there’s an underlying disquiet that seems to pervade the school. In this hothouse environment, intimate friendships among the boys are encouraged but when Bennett becomes romantically involved with another student (Carey Elwes), he is reprimanded, threatened and beaten by his peers. This leads Bennett to question his loyalty to the social system he’s being indoctrinated into and he eventually embraces Judd’s Marxist ideals.

Director Marek Kanievska bookends the film with two scenes set in the future where a journalist (Betsy Brantley) is interviewing Bennett who is now much older and living in Moscow with a male companion. The contrast between the idyllic green scenery of Britain against the cold gray industrial locations we see in Russia is obviously designed to jolt viewers and remind them of what Bennett has lost. There are also various visual clues (a coffee mug boasting the Harrods logo, carefully framed school photos, etc.) that suggest the spy still harbors some affection for the country he betrayed after defecting decades earlier. But when questioned by the journalist if he misses anything about Britain, he only admits to missing the cricket. We also learn that Judd died while fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War.

The original play premiered in 1981 and was responsible for launching the careers of Kenneth Branagh (Henry V [1989], Hamlet [1996], Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets [2002]) and Daniel Day-Lewis (A Room with a View [1985], My Left Foot [1989], There Will be Blood [2007]) as well as the film’s two stars. Rupert Everett (Dance with a Stranger [1989], Dellamorte Dellamore [1994], An Ideal Husband [1999]) and Colin Firth (Apartment Zero [1989], Shakespeare in Love [1998], The King’s Speech [2010]) both made their feature film debuts in Another Country delivering smart, sophisticated and impassioned portrayals of two complex characters that set them apart from many of their peers. Watching them today, it’s remarkable how natural they both are in these challenging roles. Their youthful floppy-haired beauty is quite frankly, breathtaking. At times they resemble 1980s New Romantic pop stars more than 1930s revolutionaries or even typical screen actors of the period but it’s their multilayered performances that make the film such a joy to revisit.

Another Country is an amorous and maudlin movie, arguably one of the most picturesque examples of a “heritage film” made in the 1980s, but it’s difficult to take its politics seriously while the camera gazes into Cary Elwes’s big blue eyes. The glossy cinematography may seem at odds with the subject matter but it’s designed to manufacture nostalgia for a world that never really existed. Kanievska, with help from cinematographer Peter Biziou (Time Bandits [1981], Pink Floyd – The Wall [1982], Mississippi Burning[1988]) creates a dream-like atmosphere suggesting that the boy’s talk of revolution is part of a youthful fantasy but underneath all the cinematic polish the film hints at a much darker reality. The school is a microcosm of the ruthless British class system that pervades modern society.

When Another Country opened in New York during the summer of 1984 it received mixed to downright hostile reviews from American critics. It’s important to remember that homosexuality was still a relatively taboo subject at the time and a film showing attractive teenage boys espousing Marxist ideas while expressing their romantic feelings for one another undoubtedly set off alarm bells in high places. The Cold War was still in full swing and Ronald Reagan’s conservative “Morning in America” reelection campaign had a tight grip on the country. Red Dawn (1984), a popular movie featuring American teenagers fighting off an imaginary Russian invasion, was a box office hit the same year so if Another Country had survived the lashing it received by New York critics it probably wouldn’t have stood a chance with American audiences.

Writing for The New York Times, Vincent Canby called it a “well-acted, literate but insufferably smug little movie” and insisted that “it freights an unhappy homosexual love affair between two schoolboys with more in the way of dire political consequences than it can reasonably bear.” And in The New Yorker, David Denby said it was “pleasing to look at” but complained about the film’s basic premise adding, “Surely a good many public-school homosexuals must have been double-crossed by friends and even unfairly caned without becoming Soviet agents.”

These observations willfully miss the film’s larger point. Another Country suggests it’s reasonable to assume that victims of brutal public institutions may begin to question the status quo. In turn, they might end up adopting radical ideologies to cope with or combat perceived enemies and institutional oppression. The fictional Guy Bennet’s political rebellion is the result of numerous factors but at its wounded heart is a yearning for a Britain whose “ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.”

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published in June 2017 at FilmStruck