Beautiful Thing Is a Masterpiece of Gay Storytelling

The 1996 British film portrayed its working-class LGBT characters with remarkable sensitivity and nuance.

Sony Pictures Classics

When Jonathan Harvey’s love story Beautiful Thing debuted in 1993 as a play, he had no idea it would eventually be heralded as a crown jewel of gay storytelling. “I felt that with Beautiful Thing I found my voice,” Harvey told The Guardian in a 2010 interview. “But it wasn’t intended to be a gay play, just a play that happened to have gay characters.” And yet his gentle coming-of-age tale of two teenagers—Jamie and Ste—struck a powerful chord among LGBT audiences. It was staged at the Bush Theatre in London, toured in the West End, and was adapted into a 1996 movie also written by Harvey, recently named by the British Film Institute as one of the 30 best LGBT movies of all time.

Despite Beautiful Thing’s title, gay life in the early 1990s was anything but pretty. AIDS, then a terrifying new disease, had started killing thousands of gay men the previous decade. While the United States was ground zero for the epidemic, Britain wasn’t immune to the fear and moral panic it inspired. In 1987, Britain’s Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, gave a speech complaining that, rather than learning to respect “traditional” values, children were being taught that they “have an inalienable right to be gay.” It was hardly a coincidence that Section 28—an amendment that prohibited local authorities from “promoting homosexuality” or teaching in schools the “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”—was enacted by Thatcher’s government the following year. The final vestige of this pernicious piece of legislation wasn’t repealed until 15 years later.

It was here—in the immediate aftermath of the Thatcher era, and while the world was grappling with the AIDS crisis—that Beautiful Thing was born. The film was genuinely subversive for its time and place: Depicting gay kids who don’t succumb to the “plague” or ultimately bow to pressure from their bigoted peers was no small thing at a moment stricken by an especially virulent, anti-LGBT mood. Yet beyond the film’s historical significance, Harvey’s story feels especially relevant today because of the diversity, even intersectionality, of its characters—a quality often still missing from newer portrayals of LGBT life.

The story is set on a postwar London council estate, which is essentially low-rent public housing. Although Jamie and Ste are friendly enough neighbors on their estate, their interaction at school is clearly fraught. In the opening scene, for instance, an athletic Ste and his group of dim lads harass Jamie, who’s far more introverted and out of step with traditional notions of British machismo. Initially, neither boy has fully accepted his sexuality, and Beautiful Thing is a delicate exploration of the often-painful process of coming out that evolves into a gay romance.

The film is filled with charming and poignant moments that could be found in any romantic dramedy. Jamie and Ste share their first kiss when Ste, avoiding his abusive family, stays the night at Jamie’s. At another point, a curious Jamie steals a gay magazine and, incorrectly, tells Ste what “frottage” is (“It’s yogurt. It’s French.”). Later, the two go to a gay joint—the first place they think to go to where they can be public about their relationship sans judgment—in a scene that gently points to the historical significance of gay bars as safe spaces. Afterward, they playfully chase each other in the woods while Mama Cass’s 1969 tune “Make Your Own Kind of Music” plays in the background. Crucially, the film’s soundtrack is flooded almost exclusively with the music of Mama Cass, conjuring up a sort of escapist synergy with counterculture, and optimism, from other eras. With these relatable and humane moments, the film telegraphed to its mid-1990s audiences something they hadn’t heard much before: Gay people are just people.

But Beautiful Thing dives even deeper. Through the film’s two other central characters, viewers also get an illuminating glimpse of gay love crosshatched with other forms of oppression rooted in identity—primarily class—as well as a broader, arguably fuller depiction of longing for, well, belonging. Aside from Jamie and Ste, one of the estate’s core residents is Sandra, Jamie’s serial-dating mother who ricochets between working long hours at a pub and dealing with a truant son who’s made a habit of cutting school to escape bullies. Sandra hopes to manage her own pub one day so that she and Jamie can get off their “bloody estate,” which is steeped in social turmoil and unemployment.

Further shining a light on this malaise of the British underclass is their neighbor, Leah. A young black woman obsessed with Mama Cass, Leah is easily the most spirited character in the film. The first time viewers see her onscreen, she’s coolly singing “One Way Ticket,” Mama Cass’s brilliantly bold ode from 1971 about leaving town—or in this case, a high-rise housing project—for good: “Northbound, southbound, I don’t even care.” Although Beautiful Thing never addresses race as fully as it could, the simple presence of Leah—who’s been expelled from school and spends a lot of her free time taking drugs and groaning about how “there’s fuck-all to look forward to” on the estate—mixes in more working-class realism. She also proves fiercely loyal, covering for Jamie and Ste after Ste’s bully of a brother gets suspicious about their sleepovers.

Far from detracting from Beautiful Thing’s queer aspect, baking in this class element adds a few layers to it. For Jamie and Ste, the problem is two-fold: It’s about how to break free from one chamber of oppression—the closet (“Scared of being called ‘queer’?” Jamie asks Ste at one point)—when they’re also stuck in another—on a council estate with family members who might be unaware of their own anti-gay prejudices or who might react violently to learning about their sexuality. “There ain’t nowhere else [to go],” a distraught Ste tells Sandra after she’s unearthed his and Jamie’s secret.

Perhaps unintentionally, Beautiful Thing is an early, tacit example of a film with an intersectional message. The movie supports the notion that the different parts of an individual’s identity—class, gender, race, sexuality—shouldn’t be teased apart and viewed separately, because oppression can work in multiple, overlapping ways. Indeed, Harvey has said his penchant for writing edgy, working-class productions comes, to a large extent, from the fact that he grew up on a council estate in Liverpool, “so the voice inside of [his] head is certainly more at home writing about that than about posh people.”

But Jamie, Ste, Sandra, and Leah aren’t just not-posh people. None of the film’s key characters would have been considered “normative” in 1996, and, regrettably, it’s unlikely that any of them would be considered such today. The primary characters are two gay teenagers, a mother doubling as the breadwinner, and a young black woman, all plucked from the working class. Then, as now, the story critiques a culture that inherently devalues the stories, if not existences, of “non-normative” people.

While Beautiful Thing may not have the mainstream clout of other films on BFI’s list, such as Todd Haynes’s electrifying 2015 period piece Carol, its presence in the pantheon of gay cinema continues to expand what audiences might consider the genre of “great” films, prompting broader awareness of historically overlooked perspectives that are nonetheless worthy of attention. Its inclusion also speaks directly to the importance of letting people tell their own stories. After all, Harvey, a gay man of working-class origin, was the one who brought this cultural touchstone to life.

Harvey may not have intended to create a gay story. But perhaps this zoomed-out approach is what made Beautiful Thing such an entrepreneurial film, one that’s retained a mighty hold on LGBT and straight cinephiles alike. More than anything, Harvey allows the film’s gay protagonists to eventually live fully and visibly as themselves. Audiences see this in the most literal sense at the end of the film, when Jamie and Ste slow-dance in the middle of their estate to Mama Cass’s 1968 chart-topper “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” Departing from the tired and tiring depictions of gay people as outcasts, seedy sexaholics, and victims, Beautiful Thing offers complicated characters moored in a world in which any sort of gay nuance or texture is often redacted. On its release two decades ago, Beautiful Thing achieved a level of artistic complexity that created not only a more interesting, but also a more relevant expression of queerness. It still does this today. That was, and is, a beautiful thing to behold.