Sometimes the dots almost connect themselves.
The day after State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. debuted his “Take That Trump” themed ad, which ended with a kiss between him and his husband, I screened “Man in an Orange Shirt. The PBS film, which premieres Sunday on MPT and WETA, is about two interrelated gay love stories set 60 years apart in England.
When I first saw Madaleno’s ad last week, I wrote: “This is the personal as political” in my screening notes.
At the end of “Man in an Orange Shirt,” I wrote: “This is the political as personal.”
In this Pride Month, honoring the LGBT communities, messages about the profound ways in which politics and our personal lives connect seem especially relevant. A 30-second political ad and a two-hour, high-end production on “Masterpiece” with stars like Vanessa Redgrave have very different scripts. But they are saying some of the same things about life, love, politics and identity.
The phrase “the personal is political” became popular in the 1960s and ‘70s as part of a feminist critique of the way gender-based inequities in women’s personal lives were a political issue. It was both a statement of the way such inequality was baked into the social structure of our patriarchy and a call to arms for women to become politically active in an effort to change the system.
It holds true for every minority group, and we can’t be reminded enough of the need to continue to struggle politically for equality, while never forgetting those who have gone before in that struggle. (In fact, the “personal is political” holds true for everyone whether they think they are political or not. Think back to how your health condition or that of a family member affected your level of interest in the battle over the Affordable Care Act during the Obama administration.)
Madaleno made his personal life political by including it in his TV ad and, in so doing, made a very public statement about what his candidacy stands for in terms of civil rights. If nothing else, it is an important reminder that there are still powerful political figures, like the president of the United States, who do not support same-sex marriage. It is a reminder that elections matter, and that they can have enormous implications for our personal lives. In that sense, politics can limit and define our personal lives in terrible ways.
That theme is sounded eloquently in “Man in an Orange Shirt.” (Warning: Spoilers included.)
The film opens in World War II in Italy with Michael Berryman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) saving the life of another British officer, Thomas March (James McArdle), who is working at the front as a war artist for the government. The two are strongly attracted to each other.
But Michael is engaged to a London schoolteacher, Flora Talbot (Joanna Vanderham), and he returns to England after the war to marry her.
Before the wedding, though, he and Thomas meet in London and spend a weekend together at a ramshackle country cottage that Michael’s family owns. While at the cottage, in the full bloom of their love, Thomas paints a portrait of Michael standing in the doorway at sunset wearing an orange shirt — the image referred to in the title of the film.
In the skilled hands of screenwriter and novelist Patrick Gale, the cottage becomes richly symbolic — momentarily a vibrant representation of their liberating passion, but then it becomes a mausoleum of love unfulfilled and the life they are not allowed to have in post-World-War-II English society.
As they are preparing to return to London, Michael asks Thomas to be his best man at his wedding to Flora.
“You surely didn’t think we could set up house together like man and wife,” Michael says after Thomas reacts with surprise, anger and pain.
Harsh as it sounds today, Michael is only voicing the reality of English life at the time. Homosexuality was a crime punishable by prison.
Michael marries Flora, and has a life of “respectability” as a banker, husband and father. But it is also a life of repression for him and frustration and heartbreak for Flora.
Thomas, meanwhile, pursues his art and lives an openly gay life. And goes to prison for it.
This is politics, the laws of English society at the time, dictating the personal, defining what was and wasn’t allowed in the most intimate regions of the hearts, souls and psyches of its citizens.
Because “Man in an Orange Shirt” is art in a way a political TV ad could almost never be, it is possible for the viewer to feel the yearning, anguish and unrequited love that Thomas experiences as he sees Michael walking away from the life they might have had together in another place and time.
And because Gale’s script sensitively allows viewers to see and feel the world through the eyes of multiple characters, some viewers will also feel the ennui, desperation and claustrophobia of Michael’s life — even as they come to understand the disappointment and inner rage of Flora, who only finds out after their marriage that someone else is the love and passion of her husband’s life.
Yes, both Michael and Flora made their own choices, but the politics of their society led them to those choices in large ways — even if Thomas showed they were not inevitable for those willing to pay the price of resistance.
The second part of the film jumps forward to the present day with an elderly Flora (now played by Redgrave) as a widow living in London. Her grandson, Adam (Julian Morris), a veterinarian, lives with her in a private apartment in her home. He is gay and engages in sex with strangers via dating apps — until he meets Steve, an architect (David Gyasi), who demands more of a relationship.
Adam, Steve and Flora all find their way to the rundown Berryman cottage in the country and the past that was hidden away there with a portrait 60 years ago.
I am glad I happened to see “Man in the Orange Shirt” right after Madaleno’s ad debuted, and was able to view this moving BBC production with the added prism of today’s politics.
And I am also glad to see how several of the other candidates running for Maryland governor are also using their ads to show how their personal lives and histories affect their politics. Krish Vignarajah stresses gender as she breastfeeds her infant daughter in one of her ads, while Ben Jealous emphasizes race in talking about his mother having to leave Maryland because of laws against interracial marriage in one of his.
We all need to take and make politics personal. Too many of us viewed the 2016 presidential election impersonally as some kind of reality TV show or prime-time soap opera, a made-for-TV production intended to amuse and engage with its bombast, conflict and unpredictability.