Factual drama Against the Law recounts one of the most important stories in British history and premieres at the opening of this year’s BFI Flare, the London LGBT Film Festival. Here, Boyz film critic Jack Cline speaks exclusively with director Fergus O’Brien ahead of the screening this Thursday.
This year’s BFI Flare opens with the world premiere of Against the Law, the true story of journalist Peter Wildeblood, one of the rare openly gay men in 1950s Britain. Produced by BBC Films, the movie follows Wildeblood’s affair with a young RAF pilot and his subsequent arrest in 1954 for gross indecency, along with Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and Michael Pitt-Rivers.
In 1955, Wildeblood published a book recounting the trial and the appalling conditions of his imprisonment at Wormwood Scrubs. The book was a sensation, leading to two important campaigns: for prison reform and for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Wildewood’s testimony to the 1957 Wolfenden Committee led directly to their recommendation that homosexuality be legalised in the UK, although that didn’t actually happen for another decade. Director Fergus O’Brien brings this story to the big screen to mark the 50th anniversary of 1967’s Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised gay sex. The film paints a vivid picture of life under the oppressive laws of the 1950s with strong present-day parallels.
“Once I revisited Peter’s book,” says O’Brien, “I knew that this was the story I wanted to tell. It’s a powerful and devastating account of what it meant to be gay in those dark days and also a harrowing portrayal of the destructive power of prejudice. I think there are some who think Peter Wildeblood doesn’t deserve to be held up as a hero of LGBT rights, and I think it’s fair to say that if he’s a hero then he’s a flawed one.”
The key was casting Daniel Mays (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) as Wildeblood. “My priority was to find an actor who could bring the complexity of this character to life for audiences,” he says. “Someone who could convincingly convey the cool exterior that masked the inner turmoil. Daniel has these qualities in spades.”
O’Brien’s hope is that audiences will see the relevance of this story today. “Not only does it tell a new generation of gay people something of their history, it’s also important that we remain vigilant and safeguard the rights previous generations have struggled and suffered to win for us. Unfortunately homophobia and prejudice are still rife – in the three months following the Brexit vote there was a reported 147% rise in homophobic attacks in the UK. So it’s as important as ever that we don’t become complacent, that we defend our right to love who we want and express our sexualities.”