Man in an Orange Shirt, commissioned by BBC to celebrate the 50th anniversary of partial decriminalization of homosexuality in 1967, depicts with a modicum of success two love stories spanning seventy years. The first between two gay men hiding their passion and the second involving a duplicitous marriage of one-sided passion. Scripted by novelist Patrick Gale and partly autobiographical, Man in an Orange Shirt revisits prejudice and its impact on all.
Spanning three generations in one family, –from wartime Great Britain to the present day,– Man in an Orange Shirt uncovers secret love letters, a mysterious painting, and deep unfulfilled desires on the part of all characters.
The gently wrenching story of repressed love follows a secret romance between two World War Two soldiers Michael (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Thomas (James McArdle), and the resulting, heartbreaking impact on Michael’s wife Flora (Joanna Vanderham of “Paradise”). Compounding the heartbreak is Vanessa Redgrave who plays the octogenarian Flora trying to reconcile with a gay grandson.
Flora is furious at her husband’s sexual betrayal, but also frightened for him since homosexuality is a criminal offense. She and Michael share a sibling-like affection for each other, even though Flora wants and expects more. All three–Flora, Michael, and Thomas–are casualties, trapped by fear of prison, fear of marital rejection and fear of being a social outcast. Abrupt truncation of the secretive lives of all three leave the viewer wondering how they muddled through the superficiality of their everyday existence.
Fast forward to present day, when homosexuality is no longer criminalized, but tragedy and hurt still arise. “Gay shame” resides in the breathing space between the beloved grandmother Flora (Redgrave) and her grandson Adam (Julien Morris). Decades removed from her younger self, Grandma Flora has spent the best part of her life pretending her marriage was solid. In 2017 Adam admits he feels gay shame, even in the present climate of assumed equality and openness. Appearing to function in a gay world, Adam’s terror at intimacy and commitment is palpable, in spite of a seemingly privileged life with dating apps to staunch his boredom.
A Man in an Orange Shirt has some touching moments between Michael and Thomas, and particularly between Flora and Adam, but the pivotal conversation about Adam’s sexuality lacks emotional heft and authenticity. The scene should have resonated deeply for many who are close to their grandparents. Redgrave’s performance as a woman who never had her husband’s love turns too artificial and overwrought as she transforms into an understanding and accepting figure for Adam.
I was disappointed in this dual story of thwarted love. “Call Me By Your Name”, an Academy Award-nominated film for 2018, reflects rejecting love for the sake of social convention with more power, authenticity, and emotion. In sharp contrast, A Man in an Orange Shirt, is inconsistent and therefore forgettable.
Note: Available on PBS.com