“Fame. Infamy. What does it matter? I shan’t be forgotten.”
When the Cambridge Spies scandal hit the headlines in the 1960s, the question remained why these privileged young men from upper class backgrounds betrayed their country’s secrets to the Soviets. Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, and Guy Burgess all came from a system that practically guaranteed them success in British society. From the very best families, they were fed into the very best Prep schools, and ultimately university life was supposed to lead to the correct connections and glorious careers. But instead these young men accepted communism in the 1930s and through their espionage activities attempted to destroy the very system that nurtured them and that they flourished in. Of all the Cambridge Spies, Guy Burgess is the perhaps the most problematic. He was a flamboyant, troubled character, a homosexual who could not be called an ideologue by any stretch of the imagination.
The British film Another Country from director Marek Kanievska is an attempt to solve some of the great questions that remain about Guy Burgess. Based on a play by Julian Mitchell, the film examines the character of Guy Bennett (a thinly disguised name for Burgess and played by Rupert Everett) during one phase of his life in a posh British Prep school. Another Country depicts Guy as an alienated young man attempting to reconcile himself with a system he rejects. The school maintains a strict hierarchal, micropolitical structure–based on acceptance or punishment by one’s peers. Guy stews over his inner conflict to flout school standards while still expecting to become a prefect and even a “God”–a particular set of older boys who basically run the school.
Following the suicide of a pupil, prevalent homosexual activity must be shoved even further into the shadows. Everyone knows such activities take place, but the important thing–according to the unspoken rules of socially acceptable behaviour–is to pretend such things don’t exist. This silence is particularly impossible for Guy since he is in the throes of a mad, indiscreet crush on fellow pupil Harcourt (Cary Elwes). Guy finds the social system suffocating and hypocritical and yet ultimately, conformity to the system means advancement within the system. The film explores Guy’s defining moment as he faces his first disillusioning rejection in society. Rejected by his peers, Guy finds himself drawn to serious young communist Tommy Judd (Colin Firth)–someone who has isolated himself by choice. Rupert Everett is marvelous here as Guy Bennett–brilliant, and narcissistic, and yet unbending and unrepentant on the issue of homosexuality. If you are interested in seeing more films on the subject, I recommend Cambridge Spies and An Englishman Abroad. The term Another Country refers to the patriotic poem written by Cecil Arthur Spring-Rice converted into a hymn using music by Gustav Holst.