Now & Then by William Corlett [spoilers for the novel]

Referencing reports that Richard Armitage was headlining this film for purposes of sale at the Cannes Virtual Market. He was quoted as saying,

“The character of Chris resonated with me powerfully. I look forward to inhabiting the role and bringing this script to life.”

Also relevant from that piece, a quote by script author Matt Western:

“Although Now & Then is very much an LGBTQ+ project, it is, at its core, the heartfelt story of a mother and a son,” said Western. “Laura, in her 60s and Chris, her gay, middle-aged son, are forced to undertake an exploration of their past mistakes and regrets to try and make sense of their present condition and their relationship with each other. To find peace with now, it’s necessary for them to make peace with then.”

It’s been a while since one of Armitage’s announced projects grabbed my attention, and this book happens to be in our public library, so I arranged to get it out (there’s a whole procedure for that in the age of Covid-19). It’s a quick read (less than three hours for me). The cover of the edition I had praised it as a forgotten classic of queer literature, which is potentially an overstatement. I ended up somewhat puzzled by the book and in particular by the character of Chris.

As the publicity states, Now & Then is the story of Christopher, a middle-aged English gay man confronted with memories of his adolescence upon the death of his father. The story then switches back and forth between Chris’ youth in the fifth form and the book’s own day, presumably some time in the late 80s or early 90s. There’s not really much plot, and what there is doesn’t hold up well twenty-five years later (important developments hinge on missed connections that occur due to bungled communications — even five years after the book was originally published in 1995, his main questions could have been answered via the Internet and social media). My sense is that the attractions of the book rest heavily on what would have seemed like a period piece when it was published — the picture of life at an English independent school in the 1950s — but that the world of the mid-1990s is now almost as far away from us as readers and offers its own sort of (less well developed) period piece of the subtexts of gay life in a pre-Internet, pre-Pride UK. The novel is very British: not just the boys-only school setting (“fagging,” casual and brutal corporal punishment, a performance of A Doll’s House with all male actors, unacknowledged homoeroticism), but also its contemporary present: “cottaging,” sniping over various class markers in speech, the undertone of shame and fear of discovery persisting even in the 90s (during the days of boulevard press exposés of men engaging with rent boys, the first decade of Section 28, the specter of HIV infection, and the helplessness of various groups in addressing it) and stifling family and friendship dynamics that prevent Chris from being honest about his sexual orientation even to his best friend or his mother. Mid-1990s Chris is still afraid not only of the exposure of his sexual preferences, but also of his emotional life. The book ends on a somewhat positive tone, with Chris returning to confront the object of his youthful affections and becoming more open about his commitments, but the bottom of the line seems to be the story of a life constantly inhibited by the unresolved feelings and consequences of his youth, which distorted his entire adult life.

The flashbacks of the novel take Chris back to adolescence, when he suffered a severe, somewhat reciprocated, but ultimately futile crush on a young man two years older. The affair had to be kept secret due to the school’s homophobic atmosphere, the likely reaction of Chris’ parents, and the status of same-sex encounters as crimes. At the same time, the necessity of secrecy meant that other gay youngsters could also play roles in bullying or threatening Chris and his would-be lover. The past is at the centerpiece of the story, with Chris’ adult experiences occupying much less of the narrative, both in terms of total space, but also in terms of emotional purchase. The young Chris still has a full emotional palette, but the adult Chris is heavily stunted, and seems to remain so even after the revelations of the end of the work.

So any script that focuses on the adult role would have to revise the novel significantly. Or perhaps Chris really is a supporting role in the film script in the way he was in the novel. In any case, I’d be really interested to know what about the character of Chris resonated with Armitage — and also if a big piece of the attraction for this project isn’t the opportunity to work with Adrian Noble, who stood as an inspiration to him at the beginning of his career in the first place, around the time this novel was originally published.

Reading the novel left with me with larger artistic questions, though, about the role of novels in representing reality (past or present). Conceding that I am completely exiled from the experience of the groups that the novel presents, at the same time, I would not call this a classic of gay literature but rather a period piece. It relies very heavily — over and over again — on character types that appear to me, in 2020, as the stuff of stereotype. That doesn’t mean that I’ve never “met” any of the types that appear here (the man who disguises his same-sex attraction with hypermasculinity and violence, the out queen, the promiscuous fag hag whose emotional and sexual lives are completely distinct, the emotionally distant but controlling mother, the emotionally sterile and detached gay man, the former public school boy), at least on a casual basis. However, my own observer’s experience of gay men’s lives suggests that they have a richness that this book doesn’t even get close to. Perhaps it’s that what was reality three decades ago has now become stereotype, or even that it’s the point that in living his life, Chris never moves beyond the stereotypes, or that he’s controlled by them.

In the best of all possible worlds, Armitage’s role in this piece would not be that of the adult Chris. I don’t entirely understand how an actor who does so well with emotionality (and in particular: humiliated and shamed emotionality) gets to a role which reveals practically no emotional signals at all. Or perhaps that’s the argument: that Armitage can bring life to an emotionally sterile character. From a true “classic” or a moving novel, I expect more, or perhaps just something different. The story itself has some potential, but I struggle to see how something this dusty will make it on screen, or what Armitage would make of a role that would seem to have even less emotional latitude many of his recent outings.

~ by Servetus on September 14, 2020.

13 Responses to “Now & Then by William Corlett [spoilers for the novel]”

  1. That doesn’t sound very promising :/

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Let’s hope they did a complete rewrite. At the same time as I was fist pumping the sky (yes! Can’t wait to see him play gay!), the synopsis worried me we weren’t actually going to see him play gay, just play a gay man. Now it seems the book is even worse than I thought. Thanks for the read through.

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    • I couldn’t see Armitage in the role of the adult Chris at all, frankly, but maybe the script is rally different.

      Good point about playing gay vs playing a gay man. The first might be a bridge too far for him (whereas the second is something every actor does these days).

      Like

  3. I wonder if just the idea of exploring a mother-son relationship appealed to him. And maybe to have conversations he never had with his own mother? It will be interesting to see if they can make a good movie of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Servetus. Having trouble getting through due to my internet skills being limited . I agree that the Now and Then novel is very dated, unengaging and from where I am seems like an unlikely basis for a good film. Chris the adult is dry as dust and the story of his life after his teenage affair seems unappealing . I am not really looking forward to seeing this, if it gets made and was very disappointed by the novel and as a role for RA. I noticed that it seems to being made at exactly the same time as the Man form Rome, and also partly in Croatia . The Croatia bit makes sense form the Man form Rome, but not really Now and Then , but may be more to do with finances. I wonder whether it may to get made . I hope if one is stopped, then it is not the Man form Rome which I read at the same time as Now and Then and found engaging ( I think it is based on Carmen the opera and novel ) and clever. It is not perfect by any means ,and some characters could be removed without loss , I think anyway. The Lorenzo Quart character I thought was made for RA in every way and he would ” inhabit ” it perfectly. It is very film noir / femme fatale /erotic in a subtle way and would be a role that would be remembered . I actually felt as it stands, Now and Then would not be remembered – however bad books, can be righted by great screenplays . I hope both, if they are made are good but who can say.

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    • Hi, Lynne. If the interface doesn’t recognize you, it holds your comment until i can approve it.

      I liked the first part of “The Seville Communion” and maybe I will have a chance to continue reading it now. I don’t think we’ve had any report that Now & Then sold at the Cannes Virtual Market, so I suspect this will be one that will either be significantly delayed or disappear into the ether. OTOH Adrian Noble is a big deal, so perhaps it will be made if he stays attached to it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • has the man from rome been sold at Cannes ? I hope so – if it is delayed, RA might get to be too old for the Quart part sadly as the lead is 39 in the book although I think he is still fine now but 10 years older than Quart. it would be a shame if this did not happen as it is really an interesting &unusual part that actually seem written for him.

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        • I think the question is more “which film has funding”? Usually the point of selling a film at Cannes is to find a producer or a distributor. “The Man from Rome” seems to have a lot more development behind it, but I have the impression they are still looking for funding. Cannes is one way to obtain that, but not the only one.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. It looks like someone’s going to do a chapter by chapter analysis.

    https://bethannefreely.com/f/literary-review-analysis-william-corlett%E2%80%99s-now-then

    The last time I did that with a sub-standard book, I heartily regretted it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for the impressions, Servetus! I hope the adapatation will be able to show a depth that the book doesn’t seem to show.

    Like

    • Corlett, it turns out, was more well known for his YA / children’s novels. Once I found that out some of this book made more sense to me. The flashback sections are better than the ones in the narrator’s contemporary present.

      Liked by 1 person

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