There’s almost a formula for determining whether a subject would make a good documentary. If you could quantify just three variables – the degree to which that person is interesting, the degree to which they are important, and the volume of extant audio-visual material capturing or relating to that person – you could probably have a computer tell you whether you’ve got something on your hands. If a subject is interesting and important enough, you can make do with eight beige photographs and six surprisingly-literate letters from teenage soldiers, as Ken Burns proved with The Civil War. The stories of the Friedmans of Great Neck, Long Island or Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin are not grand historical events, but were fascinating stories that spoke in microcosm to complex social issues, and were buttressed by the survival of extensive of-the-moment material. Errol Morris can interview just about any old goofball and spin it into must-watch content. You get the idea.
Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton CBE is the odd case of somebody who probably just barely squeaks over the threshold for all three metrics. Beaton was a colorful character: witty, talented, and ambitious, a Renaissance man who photographed the British Royal Family, World War II, and, by sheer luck, the Rolling Stones, won Oscars and Tonys for costume design, published diaries detailing his affair with Greta Garbo, and generally had a Zelig-like propensity to appear in basically ever place and moment in which anybody with his wide variety of skills and appetite for social climbing could’ve made headway. He’s the kind of person who would make a great recurring secondary character on a really good Netflix show, and hey, you know what, he is one, played by Mark Tandy on The Crown, where he’s frequently portrayed (perhaps understandably, perhaps unfairly) as a pretentious, classist, patronizing supplicant to the Windsors.
So it’s not surprising that someone found him a worthy subject on his own; in this case, its documentarian and author Lisa Immordino Vreeland, whose Love, Cecil is, like her previous work on her grandmother-in-law Diana Vreeland, is both a film and a book (this reviews covers only the former). As a documentary, Love, Cecil has perhaps the oddest problem you could imagine: it’s good.
There is a “right” way to make a documentary, in the sense that there are a series of conventions, tactics, and well-worn structures that form most of the building blocks of most documentaries. If you apply 100% of them and 0% of anything else, you will make… a good documentary. You will get a totally-unbegrudging “A” from your film school professor. But you will also shed any opportunity to do something novel, something risky, something with the potential to be great, to truly express its subject.
This is especially the case with a subject like Beaton, who again is only juuuuust interesting enough, juuuust important enough, with juuuuust enough material available (including extensive interviews with folks who knew him). Beaton is primarily interesting for having lived a certain kind of life, a life not possible before and after, a life of somebody about the scene, a life of somebody who knew people and was known, a life of somebody who survived for long stretches because he had a patron. If he’d been born earlier, there would’ve been no avenue for someone like him to make anything of his life; if he’d been born later, the carefully cultivated social and professional scenes, and their modes of operation, in which he thrived would’ve been obliterated. That world, the world both made possible (at least for charismatic Englishmen) by a certain iteration of capitalism and then flattened by a different iteration of capitalism by the time I was born, is a world worth capturing.
But capturing it would’ve meant using Beaton less as a subject and more as a vehicle. It would’ve meant focusing more on some of the odd or difficult moments in his life, such as the years he spent in the wilderness after bizarrely smuggling the word “kike” into an illustration for Vogue magazine, resulting in a huge embarrassment and loss for Vogue and the seeming destruction of his career, before he was bailed out by the Queen of England herself. It’s not that Love, Cecil ignores that remarkable incident, far from it; it’s just that it doesn’t know what to do with it, so it covers it, then… moves along. Later an equal amount of time is devoted to noting that Beaton disliked, and/or was disliked by, Evelyn Waugh, Noël Coward, and Kate Hepburn. ¯_(ツ)_/¯
The result is a perfectly pleasant film about a mostly-pleasant subject that ends up expressing little of lasting interest about its subject or the implications of his life. That is perhaps unsurprising; even the title of its film suggests something uncritical, something gently wafting by, the conclusion of a charming letter from an old acquaintance. For some folks, perhaps that’s all they want out of a film like this. For others, Love, Cecil will likely leave them thinking they just watched a good film, but wishing they’d watched a great one.