A few years after they fall in love, one of the lead characters in Man In An Orange Shirt—produced by Kudos for BBC 2 and PBS Masterpiece—writes a letter affirming his undying love to the other, a man from whom he has become almost estranged. The letter has been long-considered, it is passionate, and it is true. For many viewers two lines of the letter (which we hear in the character’s voice-over) may well prove to be the essential key to this moving drama: “…I want us to be together and to keep on loving one another for so long that it becomes normal…” and “…I want us to do the ordinary things”. The central sadness of the story is that he does not mail the letter, the love of a life time does not become normal, they never do the ordinary things. It is a story of people trying to do their best when the times allow them no best option. The depth and magnitude of the film’s resonance arises of course from the fact that countless millions of lives have been at least somewhat similarly thwarted, stunted, repressed, or misdirected. The two-hour film, scripted by novelist Patrick Gale, thoughtfully produced and impeccably acted, aired in the U.K. last year on the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality and has now been released in honor of Pride Month in the U.S. The poignant hopefulness of the film’s resolution and the fact that more people now have more opportunity to act upon options to normalize the most fundamental human yearning—to love and be loved and to share the doing of ordinary things—shape an historical lens that keeps Man In An Orange Shirt from irredeemable pathos.
World War II brings Michael Berryman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Thomas March (James McArdle) together, when Michael saves Thomas’s life in battle. Thomas is a talented artist, Michael goes into banking. The two enjoy an idyllic interlude at Michael’s rundown family cottage that becomes a touchstone of their short-lived happiness. Both are inescapably aware not only of the social stigma of their love but of the country’s criminal laws regarding even private behavior among consenting adults. Michael has no means of seeing how they can build a life together and feels he must marry his longtime acquaintance Flora (Joanna Vanderham). Flora finds some of Thomas’s love letters to Michael and, almost simultaneously, gives birth to a son. The second half of the film takes up 60 years later with Flora (now played by Vanessa Redgrave) and her grandson Adam (Julian Morris), a veterinarian addicted to hook-up apps, random sex, and bouts of soul-searching shame. Though technically plugged into the contemporary era’s desperation for quick gratification, the otherwise intelligent and sensitive Adam has apparently had no modelling for substantial relationship and Flora, his chief remaining family member, though she loves him, lives in denial of any intimation of his sexuality. To his surprise Adam meets a man who wants, and insists on, more.
Directed by Michael Samuels, Man In An Orange Shirt aspires to be a both a romantic tearjerker and a heartfelt family drama. It doesn’t completely succeed on either point—it can at times feel both hurried and something of a sociology abstract—but its merits outweigh its weaknesses. What it does perhaps most admirably is avoid the pitfall of suggesting: Well, things were bad then, but now everything’s fine. The suffering caused by ignorant, wrongheaded, and vindictive social mores and generational guilt and clandestine secrecy is depicted not only through the impacts on Michael and Thomas but in Flora and, later, in Adam. The urge to label is not merely unrealistic and unimaginative, it is ultimately destructive.
McArdle’s portrayal of Thomas, the artist who wants to live with Michael somehow beyond the strictured hypocrisy of the times, is deftly understated, and Jackson-Cohen, as the more conventional man struggling with a shadow of a life sustained by fear and an internalized sense of propriety he knows to be specious, is memorably touching. Vanderman’s younger Flora is multifaceted and honestly detailed, as are Morris’s Adam in the contemporary half of the film and David Gyasi’s performance as the man who patiently helps him find a more authentic way to live. Others among the excellent cast are Julian Sands, Laura Carmichael, Frances de la Tour, and Adrian Schiller.
Vanessa Redgrave as the older Flora is luminous. Even in the briefest scenes she is able to portray the grandmother’s least sympathetic characteristics with profound humanity, her confusion in breathtaking stillness, and a lifetime’s determination to love as grace forged in steel. Redgrave’s capacity for subtly communicating a character’s complexity has always had a remarkably intuitive, stripped-down straightforwardness. Now in her eighties, one of our greatest actors has distilled decades of living and craft into an essence that arrests and engages and somehow manages to evince character even with the barest suggestion. As much as through any of the dialogue and action in the film we learn who Flora is in a one-image scene in which, before bed, she sits in solitary silence brushing with measured strokes her long white hair.
– Hadley Hury