From the very beginning the connections between early-century espionage and male homosexuality are made clear in Ungentle. After mulling over when he became a traitor, the enigmatic narrator notes that “Deceit is an English game.” Indeed, through the shared elements of lying and secrecy it is hard to disentangle the two in the film’s exploration of the wider context of 1930s Britain.
Unsettling and intriguing, Ungentle builds upon the story of the Cambridge Five, a group of communists from public schools who infiltrated British intelligence and passed information on to the Soviet Union in the run-up to World War 2 and through to the Cold War. Written by Huw Lemmey, who is also one part of the meticulously researched podcast Bad Gays, which explores the complicated history of “evil queers,” and co-directed by Artist-Filmmaker Onyeka Igwe, it retains a distance from the audience, with the narrator remaining unnamed and relating histories that almost, but not quite, belong to historical members of the infamous espionage circle.
Narrated by Ben Whishaw, Ungentle is a rumination on this man’s life hidden in two closets, both of which require their own code-switching and elaborate dances with men both trustworthy and untrustworthy. Indeed, an extended description of engaging with acquaintances and strangers in the darkness of Hyde Park. Whishaw’s narration begins clipped and detached, but along the way gains a slightly more meandering indignant tone as he starts to question his own story.
The narration plays over the scenes where the protagonist’s story supposedly takes place: from pastoral scenes of his early wealthy upbringing; Cambridge, where the young men met and conspire at college parties and collectives for the first time; on to bustling scenes of the London where they blended into British society: and to the seaside towns where they escaped from one life into another. The connection between the narration and the scenes is made jarringly clear in several moments when Whishaw’s character directly introduces the audience to a place onscreen, for a moment complicating or confusing the direction of the viewer’s gaze.
Mesmerising, refusing to adhere to any certainty regarding convention or genre, Lemmey and Igwe’s piece is neither entirely biography or fiction. It retains that sense of enigma that may never be teased out from its subject matters.