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DVD Review: Stonewall

" STONEWALL " Photo by Philippe Bosse

After sparking controversy with the release of its trailer and then being slammed both at the box office and by critics upon its US theatrical release last year, Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall finally reaches our UK shores though only via a mere straight-to-DVD release, and unsurprisingly so.

War Horse’s Jeremy Irvine plays Danny Winters, a high school senior who has no choice but run away from home after being outed by his peers. It’s 1969 in small town Indiana after all and homosexuality is illegal – so when Danny is caught in a car, engaged in inappropriate acts with the quarterback of the school’s football team, the outcome is not pretty. Humiliated in public and even worse, betrayed by his lover who leaves him burning at the stake alone, Danny demonstrates guts and integrity rejecting his father’s orders to treat the episode as a one-time thing and forget about it.

The heartbroken boy decides to flee to New York City where he was bound to move to for college in the fall, having earned a scholarship for Columbia University. However, since he leaves home before graduating and with his father (who is also the school’s football team coach) refusing to sign off the scholarship papers, Danny has to take evening classes in order to get the final credits towards his high school diploma, whilst working at a grocery store.

This is actually the point in the film where things start working out a bit for Danny after a rough fist impact with the big apple, which is actually how the story kicks off. Flashbacks of what led him to leave his home are interspersed along the way, linked to whatever the boy is going through in New York. Upon his arrival in the city, Danny heads straight for the Greenwich Village, renowned for being a gay-friendly neighborhood. But the naïve and penniless country boy has a rude awakening.

Although to this day I can’t certainly call myself an expert on the Stonewall riots, I think the issues that plague this cinematic depiction of the events extend way beyond the controversial white-washing accusations sparked by its trailer when it first debuted. If anything, it all comes down to the uninspired treatment of the fictionalised storyline at the core of the film.

Truth is that Stonewall is full of good intentions and unfulfilled promises but its faults actually lie more in the script rather than in the work of its director. It’s not shocking that Emmerich lacks the sensibility to handle the material with the subtlety and pathos that such a story requires. What’s disappointing however is that Pulitzer-nominated playwright John Robin Baitz wrote a screenplay that’s so dull and full of clichés I had a hard time believing that someone with his pedigree and who’s also openly gay had penned it.

In New York Danny witnesses a more open-minded environment where gay people are not necessarily closeted as their status quo but society still couldn’t be any farther from accepting them. Lost and disoriented, our protagonist befriends Ray (Jonny Beauchamp) and his street gang of queer misfits who scrape by with your typical mix of petty theft and hustling. Though at first he joins the group and their lifestyle in survival mode, things take a different turn when Danny visits the Stonewall gay bar for the first time and meets Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) a gay activist who immediately gets a crush on the boy.

It’s no surprise that Danny falls into the charming net of an older and more experienced man who awakens the boy’s political awareness but this impromptu romance jeopardises Danny’s friendship with Ray. It’s clear form the start how Ray’s feelings for Danny transcend friendship and the street-smart gang leader feels betrayed after helping Danny out to stay afloat upon arrival in the big city. Add to the mix that the Stonewall’s owner Ed Murphy (Ron Perlman) is a mafioso who takes advantage of these kids by allowing them to have an unofficial gay bar (serving alcohol to LGBT people was illegal at the time), and you get a better sense of the mess Danny gets himself involved with.

The first film that comes to mind whilst watching Stonewall is Matthew Warchus’ Pride (2014) which tells a similar story but does so seamlessly. Like in Stonewall, Pride has a totally fictitious character, Joe (George MacKay), created to lead the audience into the story. However, whilst Joe is part of a greater ensemble and serves his storytelling purpose efficiently, Danny is the protagonist in Stonewall, shifting the focus from the riots and the real people to a stereotypical fictional character.

No matter how more or less detailed your knowledge of the historical event is, you’ll easily realise that the film’s Achille’s heel isn’t the alleged misrepresentation of minorities but rather the storytelling choices which deliver a messy and unfocused narrative. Emmerich has defended the film’s intent when the trailer ignited controversy, claiming that all sorts of minorities and LGBT types are featured in the story and blamed the film’s failure at the box office upon the internet crusade against said trailer, concluding that Stonewall was a white event but nobody wanted to hear that anymore.

The man behind big blockbusters such as Independence Day, Stargate, 2012 and so forth is openly gay and this apparently was his passion project, plus he’s been recently showing interest in making smaller scale films like Anonymous (2011) in between his usual spectacularly bloated fare. Yet being a filmmaker who’s made his livelihood out of mastering heavily CGI-ed, sweeping action is something embedded in his DNA. Hence helming an emotionally charged, character-driven film about the historical moment which ignited the gay liberation movement in America, was a hard task to pull off. What surprises the most though is that when called to actually put his pedigree filmmaking expertise to good use in the riots scenes, Emmerich falls short, making the lack of the kind of budget he’s used to play with rather evident.

There’s still a redeeming quality to Stonewall though: amongst the less inspired casting choices (see pretty-face twinky boy Jeremy Irvine in the lead role) the German director gives room to the impressive and rising talent of Jonny Beauchamp to shine as the charismatic yet vulnerable Ray. And whilst one wishes the other members of Ray’s gang got more screen-time, each of them still manages to contribute their little peculiar touch to the ensemble. If only the script had served them the way Pride’s one does to its cast…

At least we can argue that Stonewall still functions as a coming out/coming of age tale with a positive message, However, if younger generations want to learn a piece of history, then probably they’ll have to wait for a film that actually delivers on the promise of that premise.


Stonewall is out now in the UK on DVD
(Running time: 129 minutes)
(Special Features: Cast/Crew Interviews)


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