“Didn’t I promise to safeguard your morals or something?”
Based on the Alan Hollinghurst novel, the BBC television series The Line Of Beauty unfolds through the eyes of Nick Guest (Dan Stevens). Nick, a middle class student studying Henry James at Oxford, is invited by his friend Toby Fedden (Oliver Coleman) to stay at his family’s posh home in London’s Notting Hill. Nick is swept away by the Feddens’ prestige and affluence, and as he becomes enamored with the family, he’s seduced by money, power, and sex into the moral void that surrounds the Feddens. Ultimately this is a tale of the 80–Thatcher’s Britain, the corruption of the wealthy set, racism, homophobia, classism, and the sceptre of AIDS.
Gradually Nick is absorbed into the Fedden home and becomes a permanent fixture. Although the Feddens on the surface appear to be a glamourous family, their elegant lifestyle, antique stuffed home, and perfect manners shield a great deal of ugliness. While Nick is ostensibly treated as ‘one of the family,’ there’s always an implication that he has a social role to play. As a personable, unattached gay male, he makes up the difference at dinner parties by escorting single women, and he’s also expected to be a caretaker of hostile lithium-plied daughter, Cat (Hayley Atwell). Gerald Fedden (Tim McInnerny) is a prominent Tory M.P. who’s slated for a glittering career in the party. Pompous, hard, and ambitious, he hides these traits with a blustery joviality and a true talent to diffuse even the most explosive situation. Mrs. Fedden, Rachel (Alice Krige) is the perfect politician’s wife–elegant, poised, but also content to stay in the background, and if there’s anything ugly in her life, she copes by ignoring it.
While everyone knows Nick is gay, it’s a subject that’s largely ignored and never discussed. Nick has a relationship with a lower class, bicycle riding black man, Leo (Don Gilet), and also with Wani Ouradi (Alex Wyndam), the Lebanese heir to a gigantic fortune. Wani, like most of the gay men in the Fedden’s filthy rich set, is firmly in the closet, and he accepts the fact that he leads a risky double life. With Wani’s money and influence, Nick establishes a glossy magazine and even toys with a film script for The Spoils of Poynton.
Nick is an amazingly hollow character, and it’s no accident that he’s a Henry James scholar. Nick, as the outside observer of the wealthy set, is the perfect Jamesian character. As a hanger on of the smug, self-satisfied filthy rich, he’s half in love with the power and affluence of the upper crust, and he’s also an observer of their troubling, tainted and poisoned morality. One of James’s themes is that love is often in competition with power and aesthetic beauty. In The Line of Beauty power is the overriding element in all relationships, and this is something Nick–a class outsider–fails to realize until the very end.
Directed by Saul Dibb, with a spectacular cast, stellar acting, and marvelous sets, The Line of Beauty exceeded my expectations. While on one level, it explores Nick’s moral dilemma as he navigates life with the decadent, rich and powerful set, on another level, the plot is heavily influenced by the master, Henry James. It was delightful for this James fan to drink in the themes and the moral dilemma of Nick–a man who basically knows he should make a moral stand but subsumes his morality to the affluence and power of those who use him–and in some cases–even despise him.