Trauma inevitably creates narratives that explain, contemplate,
protest or lament human suffering. The best stories both comment
on the agony of particular individuals and illuminate larger themes
that transcend circumstances, while the worst stories trivialize
that suffering to make sugar-coated generalizations about the
human condition. Fortunately, Alive and Kicking uses AIDS
and London's contemporary gay community to tell a starkly realistic
story, not only of the disease and its impact, but one of relationships,
art and psychological oppression.
Alive and Kicking focuses on Tonio (Jason Flemyng), a dancer
with London's Ballet Luna, a small dance company that has seen
its ranks ravaged by AIDS. The troupe decides to put on one last
show before calling it quits, and for their final piece they choose
Indian Summer, a pas de deux for two male dancers. Beautiful
and egocentric Tonio, himself HIV positive, will dance the lead
in the group's final show, but the troupe faces problems from
the get-go. Their aging choreographer Luna (Dorothy Tutin), is
suffering from Alzheimer's disease and is having problems remembering
the piece she choreographed years ago as a tribute to gay men.
In dotty Luna's words, "This is a piece about queers, and
queers have made my company great."
But Tonio, while submerging himself in art, must still deal with
the losses of his friends to AIDS and his withdrawal from emotional
attachments to other men. He soon meets Jack (Antony Sher), a
therapist who works with HIV-positive patients. Jack falls in
love with Tonio and challenges him to enter a relationship despite
his fears. The two are an unlikely pair: Young Tonio's only seeming
vice is a love for ice cream, while the older and plainer Jack
drinks, he says, to forget the stress of his job.
This plot description is a pale shadow of the film's astounding
script, written by Martin Sherman, author of the critically acclaimed
play Bent. The script, while at times bitingly funny, addresses
some very heavy issues, not only about AIDS but also about the
inherent power differentials in any relationship. Tonio and Jack
are continually in a tug of war over how much they care for each
other and how much each is willing to compromise to stay together.
That Tonio is HIV positive while Jack is by career an AIDS caregiver
adds a large amount of complexity to their interactions. But despite
such issue-oriented themes, the plot of the film drives forward
so that philosophical points are perfectly blended with unfolding
events on screen. Other art house flicks would do well to emulate
Alive and Kicking's absorbing pace.
Screenwriter Sherman also achieves a wonderfully complicated protagonist
in Tonio, who is by turns funny, depressed, pathetic and driven.
The character is remarkably acted by Jason Flemyng, who has been
named a Best Young European Actor by the Cannes Film Festival.
Antony Sher as Jack is even more accomplished, receiving a Tony
nomination for the title role in Stanley and winning three
Oliviers (Britain's Oscar equivalent) for Best Actor. Sher's performance
is so compelling that you almost can't buy his playing the ugly
duckling to Tonio's swan. Dorothy Tutin as the aging diva Luna
also gets thesping kudos, as does Diane Parish, who plays Tonio's
lesbian friend Millie. Parish's character is particularly crucial
to an interesting subplot about the friendships between gay men
While Alive and Kicking explicitly addresses AIDS and its
real-world consequences, it never patronizes the audience with
easy platitudes or overblown melodrama. It would have been easy
for the subject matter of the film to dictate clichés about
the AIDS crisis, but the film takes the disease as it is without
trying to shoehorn it into becoming a dramatic statement in and
of itself. Instead, the characters in Alive and Kicking
convey the messages the film has for viewers, and it is through
their specific interactions that the film successfully achieves