Films in which the primary characters have AIDS generally focus on the mechanics of dying, the loyalty of grieving friends and partners, the reconciliation with (or estrangement from) family. At first glance, Alive & Kicking, written by Martin Sherman (Bent) and directed by Nancy Meckler (Sister My Sister), seems to fall into this category.
It's London 1995, and a group of dancers are making regular visits to their dying mentor, trying to bring him some of their vitality and joie de vivre even as his own is draining away.
But Alive & Kicking quickly shows that behind this unselfish devotion is a form of psychic exhaustion, a compassion fatigue. As Tonio (Jason Flemyng) and fellow dancer Millie (Diane Parish) stand outside the hospital coordinating their scheduled visits, they discuss the friends and lovers they have visited in the AIDS ward. Wearily, they realize that their recollections of individuals have begun to blur together in a seemingly never-ending cycle of grief.
Despite a diminished energy level, the HIV-positive Tonio continues to dance with a ferocious dedication. Wildly flirtatious and charmingly vain, he has nonetheless given up on the idea of a relationship. His expectations are upturned by a surprising and determined suitor. Jack (Antony Sher) is a therapist who works with AIDS patients, but he's hardly Tonio's savior. The stocky Jack, a heavy drinker, is filled with rage at his own powerlessness.
The strong physical attraction of opposites (the film doesn't shy away from their sexual relationship) is only the beginning of this complex union where misunderstandings, arguments, temper tantrums and frank discussions replace a pat "happily ever after."
Sherman's screenplay has its preachy and unintentionally funny moments, but the beautifully nuanced performances from the lithe Flemyng and solid Sher (strikingly different from his controlling role as Disraeli in Mrs. Brown) make the relationship feel mighty real.
Director Meckler seems ill at ease with the dance sequences until the penultimate performance, a pas de deux called "Indian Summer," whose underlying theme is "unexpected warmth." Alive & Kicking shows how even the bleakest forecast can still accommodate a few rays of sunshine.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].