Portrait of an influential fashion rebel cuts some corners
Professional men of the Western world should be thankful for fashion rebel Beau Brummell. Without him, we might be powdering our faces to a ghostly pale, wearing pantaloons, and donning Phil Spector-like wigs now found on carnival Bozos. From the late 1700s into the 1800s, Brummell pioneered a style for men that rejected foppery and embraced dark, cut jackets, white shirts, and neckties. If the E! channel existed back then, it would have made him the host of a show called something like "Fop No Mo'."
The movie "Beau Brummell: This Charming Man," which premieres tomorrow at 8 p.m. on BBC America, is a portrait of the original dandy. A friend and fashion advis er to the Prince of Wales, he excited a country of followers, including the Count d'Orsay , the inspiration for the fictional New Yorker magazine icon Eustace Tilly . In its promotion for the movie, BBC America cleverly notes that Brummell was a metrosexual long before the word was coined.
But Brummell, played by James Purefoy , was more than a man from whom GQ and Esquire learned "studied carelessness without the appearance of study," as Brummell calls it. He was a socialite who knew how to milk fame, putting himself in the company of the right people at the right time. He parlayed his connection to the prince (Hugh Bonneville ) into a career that, in some strange ways, bears a comparison to Kevin Federline, who found his magical connection with Britney Spears. Brummell also used his royal association for financial gain, building up debts that would become his final undoing.
Purefoy, who was so effectively mercurial as Mark Antony in "Rome," makes it clear that Brummell merely tolerated the prince. He reads Shakespeare with the prince and wins him over, but when he meets and is dazzled by the more charismatic Lord Byron, he can no longer hide his contempt. Byron, played by Matthew Rhys from "Brothers & Sisters," is a political firebrand and social maverick, and as Brummell gets closer to Byron he falls out of the prince's good graces. The royal rejection, coupled with his gambling and his sexual promiscuity, leads Brummell toward a pathetic end in poverty and isolation.
The subtitle "This Charming Man" is taken from the title of a Smiths song. So it's fitting that the movie has an enjoyably droll tone and homoerotic shadings, particularly as men come from all around to sit in Brummell's bathroom and watch him perform his daily toilet. "Beau Brummell" isn't a comedy, so much as a sad portrait of an empty man who sabotages himself. But there are humorous moments, particularly in the fashion wars between the dandies and the men Brummell calls "peacocks."
Unfortunately, whether because the BBC cut down "Beau Brummell" to fit a time slot with commercials, or because the script, by Simon Bent, is half-baked, the narrative doesn't flow evenly. Once Brummell is out of favor, his decline comes too fast and it is peopled with a few characters who haven't been properly developed. The story of Beau Brummell is so resonant, especially right now, as the fashion and fame industries are bigger than ever before. A movie about this influential, ground breaking, soulless, and, yes, charming man shouldn't be skimping on the details.