Based on the award-winning Martin Sherman stageplay and directed here by Sean Mathias, Bent is set in a decadent yet increasingly fascist Berlin poised on the cusp of war and in an atmosphere furiously hostile to homosexuals.
As the witch-hunting authorities close in on them, gay lovers Max (Owen) and Rudi (Brian Webber) spend two years on the run, living rough until captured by the Nazis. En route to a concentration camp, Rudi is slaughtered by one of the guards and Max, now alone, forms a friendship with fellow inmate Horst (Bluteau).
Although Mathias was praised for his direction of the stage play revival some six years ago, Bent has made an uneasy transition to the big screen, suffering from prosaic direction and burdened with a huge atmosphere problem; it is broody, dark and depressingly downbeat.
Appropriately enough, Mathias has focused on the love story rather than fashioning a heavy polemic, but there are not nearly enough shimmers of inspiration, weighed down as it is with large chunks of lifeless dialogue and stillborn ideas cropping up at every turn.
That said, Bent won the Prix De La Jeunesse at Cannes in 1996, and such an accolade was bestowed in part for a fine performance from McKellen as closeted Uncle Freddie and the competent execution of several key set pieces by Mathias such as the scenes in which the two protagonists "make love" without touching, and the execution on the train sequence.
Unfortunately, Owen and Bluteau as the incarcerated duo, though competent, fail to make anything of the material. Inevitably, such raw material is bound to make for a grey film but that such a traumatic story is deadened by an extraordinarily lacklustre treatment is an unwanted achievement.