At the beginning of Another Country, infamous British spy and traitor Guy Burgess (Guy Bennett in the film, played by Rupert Everett), is asked why he betrayed his country? He answers that “You’ve no idea what life in England in the 1930s was like,” initiating a flashback and establishing the film’s central focus, the recreation of a moment and way of life.
Set in a British public (i.e., private boarding) school, Bennett/Burgess is in love with another pupil, James Harcourt (Cary Elwes). Because he is so open about his infatuation, everyone, including his communist friend Tom Judd (Colin Firth), assumes that this is just Guy’s pose. Guy revels in the outrage his performance inspires until he realizes he really is in love with Harcourt. Their romance leads to his downfall, which by implication is his first step towards treason.
The film’s densely textured recreation of public school routine at least suggests what “life in 1930s England” looked like for the pampered and rich. Unlike many British period dramas, it is not just a curio case. Every fastidiously accurate detail counts, with each piece cumulatively contributing to a believable environment that, just shy of contemporary expectation, feels both familiar and a little foreign.
The sordid details of public school life that this approach makes possible, combined with Guy’s eventual humiliation, reveal an abusive and coercive preparation for English ruling class life. It is no mystery why Guy should find it despicable. Whether his disgust adequately explains his treason, however, is less certain. The film does not simplistically imply that the incidents we witness are responsible for Guy’s betrayal, much less justify it. At most, this story shows the beginning of a fateful journey. Yet presumably thousands survived the rigors of the public school system, not to mention the millions of people in “1930s England” who labored outside the film’s lush settings, without becoming Soviet spies. So what is so disastrously “special” about Guy’s story?
Indeed, just what is “special” about Guy himself? Because of his background, he implicitly feels entitled to a plum career in the civil service. Until his humiliation, he is content to float glibly on the surface of that privileged world, condescending occasionally to tweak the noses of his fellow inmates. Given the petty nature of the maneuvers indulged in by Guy and the other pupils, their machinations feel more like the sadistic games of boys with too much time on their hands than pervasive social pathology. (Even Judd’s Marxist moralizing comes off as posturing.)
Everett is perhaps too well suited to portray spoiled boy Guy’s self-indulgent narcissism, and despite his victimization, he is not particularly attractive or sympathetic. What he endures is appalling, but it is hard to feel much sympathy for him when you recognize how much he owes to the very system he condemns and is otherwise more than ready to exploit. He didn’t exactly have his disgrace coming, but he shouldn’t have been surprised when it did.