Martin Sherman’s 1979 stage play Bent, which originally starred Ian McKellen in the West-End and Richard Gere in Broadway, is about a homosexual man sent to the Dachau concentration camp in 1930s Nazi Germany. The 1997 film version was adapted for the screen by Sherman and directed by actor and theatre director Sean Mathias. Finally getting a DVD release in Australia, Bent is an astonishing film not just for the incredibly powerful story it tells but for its remarkable production design. Mathias gave the film an intentionally theatrical look rather than attempting to disguise the film’s origins as a stage play. Factories and quarries are used to represent Berlin and Dachau and the whole film has a stylised feel to it that strongly evokes the cinema of Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway.
In this film version Clive Owen stars as the lead character Max and brings to the part the type of intensity and complexity that would later distinguish him in films such as Closer, Gosford Park and The Children of Men. Owen has always had a sort of icy charisma and slight sleaziness to him, which gives him an engaging and unpredictable quality that allows him to play likeable bad guys and dodgy good guys. In Bent our sympathies do lie with Max because he is the victim of one of the most horrific and systematic acts of persecution that humanity has ever endured, but he is nevertheless a highly flawed characters largely due to his opportunism. Nevertheless, over the course of the narrative Max does evolve into a more compassionate human being and it is his displays of empathy and connection with fellow homosexual prisoner Horst (Lothaire Bluteau from Jesus of Montreal) that provide wonderful moments of defiance to the dehumanising nature of the camp.
Bent is a remarkable film that is completely captivating. It is expertly crafted so that, not unlike Steve McQueen’s 2008 film Hunger, it is a film of incredible visual beauty that enhances the power of the bleak narrative rather than contrast against it. While the confronting subject matter of Bent may not be a huge motivation for people to seek it out, it is worth making the effort because it is one of the great films of the 1990s.