“To Die For,” a remarkably forthright film about life in the age of AIDS, features engaging characters, lively dialogue, snappy humor and, above all, affecting emotion. While the drama is marred by an incongruent tone and too many changes in mood that detract attention from the main story, this British movie, which receives its U.S. premiere at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Film & Video Festival , deserves to be seen by a larger constituency than its primary target audience.
Focusing on the lifestyle of two lovers, Simon (Thomas Arklie) a handsome man who is HIV-negative, and Mark (Ian Williams), his female-impersonator companion who’s positive, screenwriter Byrne offers a new angle to the growing body of films about AIDS. His story, which begins with Mark’s deteriorating health, provides a credible chronicle of how the couple, who have an open relationship, react to Mark’s impending death.
A homebody while not performing in a club, Mark spends his time watching a video of the AIDS Memorial Quilt while preparing his own. At the same time, the more macho Simon, who works as a TV technician, spends his nights cruising London’s gay scene, looking for exciting new encounters.
Unlike most AIDS dramas, “To Die For” is not so much about Mark’s struggle with the lethal disease as about Simon’s survival after his lover’s death, which occurs in an unmelodramatic way in the first half-hour. Indeed, coming back from the hospital, Simon deposits Mark’s box of keepsakes in the closet and continues his flamboyant lifestyle, seemingly unaffected by his loss.
His new, convenient motto is life must go on.
However, in the second — and weakest — part of the film, Mark’s ghost returns to haunt his companion, giving him hell for his reckless conduct.
With a nod to Noel Coward’s classic “Blithe Spirit,” though not as funny, this sequence contains some amusing moments, as Simon is the only one who sees and hears Mark; all others think he’s crazy.
Using some special effects, the ghost scenes, which don’t add much to the proceedings, manage to shift the film’s realistic tone in a jokey, forced direction. This problem is exacerbated by two other characters, Siobban (Dillie Keane), the eccentric upstairs neighbor, and her zany, politically correct do-gooder b.f. Terry (Tony Slattery). Siobban, whom Mark describes as the Irish question, and Terry are meant to provide comic relief, but their one-liners are often coerced and incongruent with the central, much more touching, drama.
Fortunately, the film regains its consistency in the last sequences, in which Simon, a man never able to express his true love for Mark during their life together, is forced to come to terms with his feelings and newly-gained consciousness.
Some candid encounters between Simon and his mother, which result in better understanding of his dead father, also reinforce the film’s psychological realism and its rigorous fidelity to ordinary lives.
Scripter Byrne’s greatest achievement is his non-judgmental treatment of the characters, allowing for multiple P.O.V. to prevail. This is greatly assisted by the open and balanced tone by helmer Litten, whose compassion is demonstrated in the natural, appealing performances he elicits from his two leads, Arklie and Williams, both of whom make splendid debuts here. Litten is also excellent in capturing the desolate comedy of loneliness in swift, sure strokes.
Excepting Bolton’s overbearing music, tech credits of this low-budgeter are impressive, particularly Ward’s alert camera, which vividly conveys the nuanced ambiance of cruising bars, sensuous discos and gyms.
Despite its shortcomings, “To Die For” is a film of many positive qualities that is neither smug nor sentimental.
Overall, it is much more satisfying and edifying than the likes of “Philadelphia,” in which all issues readily fit into neat categories and resolutions.