Having explored the bottom of the London race, class and economic ladder with his gritty sleeper debut “Bullet Boy,” director Saul Dibb scrutinizes the very top in “The Line of Beauty.” BBC mini, originally broadcast in three one-hour parts, faithfully transcribes Alan Hollinghurst’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel about a young gay man given giddy –then disillusioning — entree to the innermost circles of Tory wealth and power during the go-go Thatcherite 1980s. Juicy, incisive drama will be in demand by the book’s many offshore fans as a DVD item. Discreet trimming could also make limited theatrical exposure possible.
Middle-class scholarship student Nick Guest (Dan Stevens) becomes best mates at Oxford with Toby (Oliver Coleman), scion of rising Tory member of Parliament Gerald Fedden (Tim McInnerny). Their platonic (if subtly yearning on Nick’s part) friendship leads to a post-graduation offer that Nick move into the Feddens’ London manse. He’s ostensibly there to work on his thesis project (tellingly, about upper-crust critic and portraitist Henry James). But the Faddens’ glittering world of European summer homes, parties, and infinitely high connections proves mightily distracting.
While he’s treated — more or less — as a member of the family, there’s also the tacit understanding that he has certain duties consisting primarily of being a “friend” to Toby’s troubled sis Catherine or Cat (Hayley Atwell), who’s rebellious, unstable and occasionally suicidal. As such she’s something of an inconvenience and embarrassment to ambitious Gerald and glacially composed wife Rachel (Alice Krige). It’s Nick’s job to keep her out of trouble while not appearing to be her designated watchdog.
Meanwhile, Nick’s other post-collegiate priority is to get laid. He gets that and more with personal-ad hookup Leo (Don Gilet), a bicycle-riding socialist of Jamaican descent who couldn’t be further from the Feddens’ elitist milieu.
Second hour jumps three years to 1986, with Nick now firmly entrenched in the Fedden universe, as well as that of new sometime lover Wani Ouradi (Alex Wyndham). The closeted son of a Lebanese supermarket chain tycoon, Wani pours his dismayed dad’s cash into a high-end glossy mag with Nick along for the ride as an editor.
As Gerald’s career skyrockets toward a possible cabinet position, private matters become increasingly at risk of becoming public. While the clan privately tolerates Nick’s sexuality, different standards apply to “the gay issue” in Tory political terms.
Third hour, one year later, sees scandals bursting the Tory bubble in general, and the Feddens’ in particular.
Andrew Davies’ screenplay omits some of the book’s nuances but also gives Hollinghurst’s narrative a firmer shape by virtue of sheer compression. Perfs are first-rate, production values sharp; only questionable aspect is Dibbs’ decision to use much hand-held camerawork, a currently overexposed technique that was apt for “Bullet Boy’s” atmosphere of roiling danger but seems off-key in depicting the tradition-focused elegance and snobbery of the Feddens’ sphere.