A new broom must be sweeping the cobwebs out of the British Board of Film Classification. Despite most European commentators expecting Intimacy to be cut to shreds by the hitherto archaic film censorship people in the UK, we have here instead probably the most graphic sex scenes ever to appear in mainstream picture houses.
The breakthroughs are all about what can and cannot be shown of a penis. In this film, we see one hard, with a condom rolled onto it, we see it resting with a condom on it, we see it being sucked. It is probably the best performing penis ever to appear in a non-pornographic film, worthy of an Oscar in its own right – and it belongs to the star of the film, Mark Rylance.
Now that we’ve got the obvious stuff out of the way, we can discuss other matters. The film is, at its core, a study of relationships, about what makes people do what they do within relationships and how one relationship affects another. It ponders why, no matter how much we have, we always find we want that which is just beyond our grasp.
Rylance, co-star Kerry Fox (she of Shallow Grave fame) and the rest of the cast are, without exception, given great characters to work with and unsurprisingly come up with the goods, but special mention must be made of Rylance’s Celtic-looking face, which says a thousand words with just one expression, and Fox’s restrained, almost cold approach to her relationship, which only takes place on Wednesdays and with scarcely a word spoken, with Jay.
That sex is the central driving force between the protagonists of New Cross, Jay (Rylance) and Claire (Fox), is crucial to explaining why to cut such graphic scenes as those described above would have been to take from the film that which is most animalistic and instinctive about it. The urgency of the sex is a direct response to Claire’s crushing marriage to Andy (Timothy Spall, looking at home down the boozer) and Jay’s divorce from a woman who scarcely speaks to him (played for about five minutes in toto by Susannah Harker).
The characters surrounding the couple include a seriously odd turn by Marianne Faithfull as a batty woman called Betty, who appears at Claire’s amateur drama classes and Timothy Spall is oddly engaging as the oafish taxi driver Andy. The scenery is one of run-down housing, squats even, public transport, dirty streets and general grime with which Londoners have probably now learned to live with but which makes one wince when it all appears on screen for the world to see.
The film is based on stories by Hanif Kureishi, who famously penned My Beautiful Launderette, and directed with real feeling for the characters by Patrice Chreau. The jerky camera which characterises the cinematography brings back memories of ‘This Life’ in places, especially when out and about on the streets of anonymous, unpersonal London. For anyone living in the UK’s capital it is a bitter but familiar pill to swallow, that somewhere, right now, in this sprawling metropolis, desperate souls are seeking solice through sex.
But while this film evokes London as much as 101 Reykjavik evokes the Icelandic capital, the place is incidental. Almost anywhere could throw two such people together – and it is for this reason that the film ultimately succeeds. It depicts human nature with all its faults, and the physical manifestation of two such natures colliding, fumbling and finally, almost literally, coming together.