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Weekly Alibi Not So Simple Minds

Alive and Kicking

By Angie Drobnic

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  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 and women.

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 greater meaning.

--Angie Drobnic

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