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MOVIE REVIEW : Coming to Terms With Self, Emotions at Heart of 'Drag'

October 27, 1995|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Heaven's a Drag" is not nearly as good a picture as it could have been, and like the similarly uneven "Jeffrey," it at once grapples with the challenge of gay relationships in the age of AIDS while nakedly tugging at the heart.

Originally titled "To Die For," it was renamed so as to avoid confusion with the current Nicole Kidman film. This modest British production, however, does cover considerable territory in gay life, throws in some campy humor, and it is well-sustained by Thomas Arklie, who excels in the film's starring role.

Arklie plays Simon, a muscular, sexy London TV repairman whose lover Mark (Ian Williams) is a boyish-looking drag performer with AIDS. The two have an open relationship, which means that while on stage Mark not infrequently witnesses Simon picking up a guy and taking off, not returning till morning. Twenty minutes into the film Mark dies suddenly, only to return as a ghost, fully materialized to Simon but invisible to everyone else. Describing himself accurately as "the original clinging queen," Mark's spirit becomes suffocatingly possessive of Simon.

Where director Peter Mackenzie Litten and writer Johnny Byrne go wrong is not in taking pains to establish Mark and Simon's relationship credibly in the first place. What attracted Simon to Mark, who dead or alive is not particularly good-looking and is often a petulant martyr, remains a mystery. Yet they've clearly been together a substantial length of time.

That we never get to know why the two became a couple undermines what eventually concerns the filmmakers most, which is the problem many men, straight or guy, have in experiencing and expressing love for another human being. Not only is Mark hectoring Simon insufferably from beyond the grave for the love he never got from him while he was alive, but also is forcing Mark to face up to his inability to love and why this is.

Mark's coming to terms with himself and his emotions is the heart of the matter, and the film's strongest aspect. The getting there is not as satisfying, however. Williams' Mark, although often admirably brave, is a truly trying individual, and the filmmakers don't help matters with some tedious comic relief from Simon's tiresome busybody Irish neighbor (Dilly Keane) and her relentlessly politically correct boyfriend (Tony Slattery). Despite flaws, "Heaven's a Drag" is likely--and perhaps deservedly--to draw audiences, just as "Jeffrey" has, because it dares to wear its heart on its sleeve.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film has virtually no sex scenes, has some strong language used appropriately and offers a fairly comprehensive view of contemporary gay life .

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

'Heaven's a Drag'

Thomas Arklie: Simon

Ian Williams: Mark

Jean Boht: Mrs. Downs

Dilly Keane: Siobhan

Tony Slattery: Terry

A First Run Features release of a Victor Film Co. production. Director Peter Mackenzie Litten. Producer Gary Fitzpatrick. Screenplay by Johnny Byrne. Cinematographer John Ward. Editor Jeffrey Arsenault. Music Roger Bolton, Kiki Dee & Elton John, Acoustic Alchemy. Art director Geoff Sharp. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

* Exclusively at the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (213) 848-3500.

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