LGBT Movies: The Lost Language of Cranes (1991)

Son’s gay. Dad’s gay. Mom’s mad as hell. The Lost Language of Cranes premiered at the UK film festival in 1991. It was broadcast on PBS and the BBC in 1992. The story follows a family as they cope with the son’s newfound liberation and the father’s deep repression. Sean Mathias adapted David Leavitt’s novel into a tight screenplay. Angus Macfadyen, Brian Cox and Eileen Atkins give skilled performances in the lead roles. Corey Parker and Ben Daniels do nice work as the son’s contrasting love interests. The story is simple but provides a thoughtful examination of the harm the closet can do.

Learn more in this spoiler filled recap.

Act One: The Son

Like most prime-time milestones, this one is sure to trigger applause in some quarters, rage in others. In the long run, one hopes, television will have taken another small step toward growing up.

John J. O’Connor, New York Times

(Dad watches gay porn in an adult cinema. A group of rats squirm in a cage.)
RATS: We’re a metaphor for the closet.
DAD: I thought cranes were the metaphor.
RATS: Them too, but that comes later.

Scene One: Son’s Home
CRANKY BOYFRIEND: You’re so clingy. You have to get over your abandonment issues.
CRANKY BOYFRIEND: (sighs) Let’s just have sex.
(They do. PBS censored it but it’s pretty tame by today’s standards.)

Scene Two: Boyfriend’s Family Visit
BOYFRIEND’s GAY DADS: Glad to finally meet you.
CRANKY BOYFRIEND: You embarrassed me in front of my dads. I’m leaving you.
TWINK BEST FRIEND: You’re better off. He was a wanker.  

Scene Three: Mom and Dad’s Home
SON: Mom, Dad, I’m gay.
MOM: That’s awful. You shouldn’t share things like that.
(Son leaves. Dad bursts into tears.)

Act Two: The Father

Scene Four: Symbolism
GRAD STUDENT: A child was found in an abandoned building. All he had to talk to were the cranes outside his window. He made up his own language.
SON: Like, bird cranes?
GRAD STUDENT: No. Like construction cranes. It’s a metaphor for how homosexuals grow up without any mentors… It probably made more sense in the book.

Scene Five: Restaurant
DAD: I’m sorry we haven’t talked. But are you sure? Isn’t everyone basically bisexual?
SON: Not exactly. Why do you ask?  
DAD: No reason.
(Dad leaves. Then hooks up with a stranger at a gay bar.)

Scene Six: Family Dinner

SON: Mom, why are you so angry with me?
MOM: Not everything’s about you. I’ve got troubles of my own.
DAD: Son, meet my handsome new co-worker. Who I am not at all obsessed with.
SON: It’s nice to meet you. I…
DAD: Do have some wine. Have you ever been to Greece?
(Son and Dad fight for the co-worker’s attention. Mom fumes.)
CO-WORKER: Dinner was lovely but I must be getting home to my girlfriend. (Flees.)

Act Three: The Mother

Scene Seven: The Aftermath
MOM: That was pathetic.
DAD: You knew all along? Why didn’t you say something?
MOM: Because my generation of women looked the other way. Just get out.

Scene Eight: The Son’s Apartment
TWINK BEST FRIEND: I know we haven’t shared much screen time but I’d like to be your boyfriend.
SON: Let’s try it! I’m clearly happier around you than with anyone else in this film. (They make out.)
DAD: Knock knock. I’m gay and I came out and your mother kicked me out and I don’t know what to do.
SON: Um… what? Well, you can stay here as long as you need. Because, unlike SOME people, I know how to be supportive.


‘Rattle Rattle’ said the Crane

Cranes features first-rate acting by all three of its stars; it goes on a bit too long, and its ending is flat, but it’s a punchy piece of drama nonetheless.

Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly

David Leavitt’s novel was published in 1986. The film moves the setting from New York to London with no harm done. The tale could have ended in tragedy but Leavitt offers his characters a ray of hope. The son is starting a healthy relationship. The father has taken a first step in helping himself. Even the mother has a smitten co-worker waiting for her. Coming out offers them a chance at new beginnings.

The Gay and Married Men’s Association (GAMMA) was founded in 1978 to support men in the father’s situation. Marrying a woman may seem cruel or selfish now but previous generations of homosexuals were actively encouraged to do so. It was considered a “cure.” A 2017 survey of search histories suggested that such marriages are still common.  

For a similar story check out Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home. For a campier David Leavitt film adaptation check out 2002’s Food of Love. You can find my other film reviews on The Avocado and Letterboxd. My podcast, Rainbow Colored Glasses, can be found here.