The story line is rather simple: a loving couple spends the autumn of their life in the eternal summer of the Costa Del Sol. Geographically, as well as historically, the bliss is suddenly endangered. Force breaks in, only to be repulsed by force. If they don’t die, the couple will love each other forever.
Hal Hartley’s early films were about the conditions under which a man and a woman can get and stay together. In Simple Men, for example, he lets the older of the two hero-brothers learn step-by-step, in an analytic setup á la Brecht, that delinquent behavior not only improves their material situation, but also gives the men an excuse not to stay with the women and to flee. When the older brother figures this out, a serious love relationship begins with an arrest: “Don’t move!”
While Hal Hartley dealt with these serious questions amidst the background of “coming-of-age,” Sexy Beast examines similar issues against the backdrop of adulthood. Emerging from a long jail stay, Gary “Gal” Dove (Ray Winstone) has vowed to put his ultra-male gangster life behind him, settling in the south of Spain with his beloved wife Deedee (Amanda Redman). Far from their past, they live by their love, so simply and cornily that one could think they’re high school sweethearts. But director Jonathan Glazer doesn’t denounce, and when during the overture we see that Gal has already attained happiness—lying in the sun at the pool drinking cocktails, occasionally putting some ice into the forefront of the heated trunks, thinking of his wife all the while—we have no reason to feel superior. Quite the opposite. Lulled into this sticky-sweet world, the entwined mosaic hearts on the bottom of the pool become quite a credible symbol of their love. So that when the conflict arrives (in the shape of an enormous boulder rolling down from the cliffs above), missing Gal by a hair’s breadth and crushing the mosaic, it becomes clear that it will take some united strength to remove this flinty intruder.
That’s when Don “Malky” Logan (Ben Kingsley), the rock personified, rolls onto the scene. Flown in from England, he is picked up in the car from the airport by Gal’s friends Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and Jackie (Julianne White). Logan looks neither left nor right and shows no interest in any scenic or physical attraction around him. He knows exactly what he wants: to set the clock back years and reinstall a man’s world. Reviving film noir, the few necessary plot lines of the backstory are presented by messenger report: Top gangster Teddy (Ian McShane) plans the ultimate coup for which he needs to reactivate the old-boy-network. Through the steam of a Turkish bath, we discover that he wants to crack into the vault of a bank administered by his ex-lover (James Fox).
Teddy got to know his lover on the occasion of an “excess,” and by showing it, commercial director Jonathan Glazer posthumously tells Kubrick: Orgies look boring on the screen. Why should Gal threaten his true happiness to join a robber’s gang? Unfortunately, Don rules the conversation, and Gal doesn’t yet know his strategically correct arguments. The drama takes its course, and Gal says the right thing at the wrong moment: that Don truly loves Jackie and has no dearer wishes than spending the rest of his lifetime at her breasts, even if it would have to be at the Costa Del Sol.
Gal has unwittingly nailed the kernel of Don’s repression. Moment’s later, cut to Don, sitting alone on his return plane to London, simmering, fuming, and lighting a cigarette. Since smoking is prohibited on board, the airplane cannot start. At airport security, Don all too cunningly presents himself as a victim of a homosexual attack by the aircrew. Upon release, he heads back Gal’s villa for a second round. The outcome will be fatal for Don, but it could prove equally fatal to Gal’s way of life—he now has to go to London and to the job, to cover for Don’s whereabouts.
The organized part of the plan succeeds (in a dream-like sequence, sundry riches float through the flooded bank vault), but the prospects for Gal’s personal agenda look rather dim. Teddy sees clearly that Gal’s life and his love in Spain doesn’t seem worth a penny. However, Teddy is more interested in maintaining his own life’s lies than in Don’s fate. Gal watches, surprised, as Teddy shoots his lover in the head. Moments later, Gal is paid off with a meager share, but is left with his life, which he will spend in sunny Spain at Deedee’s side, gazing at her admiringly as she wears the valuable earrings he pocketed from his London heist, because, after all, “diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” Under the restored twin heart mosaic at the pool’s bottom, Don now lies buried. The underworld, however, is not dead but lives on in nightmares and daydreams that will make us shudder.
Sexy Beast is Glazer’s first feature film; up to now he primarily did promotional films and music videos. Advertising aesthetics can be clearly found in the precisely arranged colors of some shots, evoking the timeless atmosphere of late ’80s ads for light cigarettes. The relationships with the cast are shown through rather classical arrangements of the frame, and that Ray Winstone is about one foot taller than Ben Kingsley (who should be the intimidating one) is elegantly resolved with seated arrangements or certain camera angles during dialogues between both. Structuring a dialogue by changing the point of focus from foreground to the background, and vice versa, belongs to the art film repertoire; and it will probably remain director of photography Ivan Bird’s (who has been working with Glazer for a long time) professional secrets as to how he was able to keep the camera’s diaphragm sufficiently open on a South Spanish noon—telling the subtext of a dialogue with a shifting focus—as well as how he managed his fade-in against the sun.
The stunning revue of tiny masterpieces in frame, editing, acting, and technique of narration is embedded into a script by Englishman Louis Mellis and David Scinto, who in 1997 wrote the stageplay Gangster No. 1. The script takes the time necessary to introduce the existential character of the conflict, and the actual violence is kept to a minumum. At the peak of the dramatic climax, when the two couples in their Spanish Elysium of adult love have to jointly kill Don Logan, the now overpowering violence is embedded into the tragic character of the situation: the only way for Gal to not get back onto the gangster track is to kill a gangster who has showed himself to be human.
Produced by Jeremy Thomas, who often worked with Bertolucci, Roeg, Oshima, and Cronenberg, Sexy Beast is not only a seemingly neon version of a film noir, but even more so it is an opera showing that suppressed desires and longing for love are way stronger motives than the contents of a bank vault that occasionally, as the film shows us, could be as insignificant as a half-empty box of cigarettes. Sexy Beast shows the love of Simple Men in the state of adulthood after being released from jail. After 90 minutes, the film’s search for love’s metaphors finally leads back to the mosaic on the swimming pool’s floor, accompanied by a Harry Belafonte song, and there is, surprisingly, no disappointment at all, but rather insight into the obstacles and possibilities of adulthood.