Directed by Roland Emmerich
Starring Jeremy Irvine, Jonny Beauchamp, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Ron Perlman
Released on 1st August 2016
It’s a week that sees the release of two DVDs looking at different aspects of gay history. Australian drama, Holding The Man, traces a long term relationship throughout the 80s and beyond, and it’s a film that’s gathered plenty of praise along the way. Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall, looks at events surrounding New York’s Stonewall riots of 1969, but has had a much bumpier ride, which started with a trailer that prompted calls for a boycott.
Emmerich isn’t a name you would usually associate with social dramas. Blockbuster adventures like Independence Day, White House Down and The Day After Tomorrow are more his style. But, as an openly gay man, this is something of a personal project for him and it’s clear this is a film made with good intentions. If only that guaranteed a good film. Because if you’re expecting something that’s actually about the Stonewall riots, this isn’t it. The riots are simply the climax, with the rest of the film following the journey of small town boy Danny (Jeremy Irvine), who realises the truth of his sexuality on a one night stand with his school’s quarter back. His father, who also happens to be the team coach, is less than tolerant and throws the boy out, so he makes his way to Christopher Street in New York. Adopted by the gay community there, he discovers more about himself and finds that there is just as much prejudice towards him in the big city as in the country.
American critics have complained that the film assumes little or no knowledge on the part of audiences. This isn’t so much of an issue for British audiences, although the film doesn’t exactly have a light touch in telling its story, especially when it explains some of the laws at the time that we would now find outlandish: for instance, it was illegal for homosexuals to be served alcohol. More uncomfortable is that, for a long stretch, it seems to reinforce that hackneyed stereotype of gay men being de facto effeminate and preferring women’s clothes. Only Irvine has a more masculine look, which means he sticks out like the proverbial sore digit, and it’s only much later that we see other gay men who tend to look more conventional. Gay women, incidentally, hardly get a look-in, confined mainly to the background and only coming to the fore for a split second at the start of the riots. Otherwise, you’d think being gay was for men only.
As we discover at the end, the film also contains portrayals of a number of real people. Perhaps the most fascinating is Ed Murphy, played by a totally bald Ron Perlman, the sinister figure, who managed the Mafia-owned Stonewall Inn, pimping and exploiting young men at the time. The captions at the end tell us that he disappeared after the riots and re-emerged some years later as a gay activist. But his character is so under-developed – in fact, there isn’t a rounded one to be seen – there’s not hint of this in the film. And yet he’s probably worthy of a movie in his own right.
If you’ve seen the trailer, put it to the back of your mind: it takes you up a blind alley. It’s the film itself that matters and the sad thing is that Stonewall is a disappointment. It doesn’t need Danny’s ersatz story. But what it does need is a ring of truth and characters to believe in. It’s another instance of a subject which could easily make a fascinating film. But this isn’t it.
Stonewall is released on DVD on Monday, 1st August and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 4th August.