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My Own Country.

Showtime is nipping at HBO's heels. With two controversial, high-profile broadcasts this summer--More Tales of the City (which was previously ditched by PBS) and Adrian Lyne's Lolita (passed on by every studio)--the pay cable network wants us to know it's not afraid of controversial material.

Now you can add My Own Country, an AIDS drama directed by Indian filmmaker Mira Nair (Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, Salaam Bombay), to Showtime's summer roster. The true story of Abraham Verghese, an Indian doctor who went to rural Tennessee to treat its first AIDS patients in 1985, My Own Country stars Naveen Andrews, the beautiful actor who played Juliette Binoche's lover, Kip, in The English Patient, as Verghese.

Brimming with idealism and convinced that a career in infectious diseases was "my only chance to be a hero," Verghese pioneered AIDS medicine in a community where biases ran deep and "queers" were disdained. Hip and compassionate, he not only treated the sick and dying but also became best friend, counselor, and advocate to the men and women who in those early days of AIDS cloaked their diagnosis in shame and secrecy.

In the film--based on Verghese's book My Own Country: A Doctor's Story--we meet Mattie (Marisa Tomei), a plucky woman caring for her dying brother; Chester and Langdon (Sean Hewitt and William Webster), a rural couple who've been in love, we're told, since age 7; Vickie (Glenne Headly), a hick trucker's wife who calls her husband a "two-timin' pervert" when he reveals his bisexuality; and Lloyd and Hope (Hal Holbrook and Swoosie Kurtz), an aristocratic couple who contracted the virus from a blood transfusion and want to spare their children the tragedy of knowing.

Eventually Verghese's involvement with these patients threatens his marriage, health, and sanity--and alienates hospital administrators who see his work, which draws patients from neighboring states, as a huge financial drain.

"I'm trained in detachment," he tells Lloyd, "but all the usual postures seem like a joke in the face of AIDS."

"To us," Lloyd says, in one of several lines that pushes our threshold for sentimentality, "you're like a messenger from another world."

If My Own Country sounds like a trek through familiar tundra, it is. Earnest and politically correct, it has its heart in the right place, but tire story it tells of AIDS, bigotry, and small-town America has been covered frequently in newspapers, films, and TV newsmagazines. There's value, of course, in celebrating the bravery and commitment of men like Verghese, but it's time for a new generation of AIDS dramas that look at HIV long-termers, the ramifications of protease inhibitors, and the psychology of surviving what we assumed was a death sentence.

My Own Country also glorifies Verghese. There's no doubt he's a remarkable man, but this drama does everything but place a computer-generated halo above Andrews's curly brown locks and fabulously cinematic :face. If we're to believe this scenario, Verghese is that rare human being who's absolutely free of judgment. Even when the Headly character gets rednecky and says things you might hear on the Jerry Springer Show, Verghese just gets this placid, benign look on his face like a dog owner indulging a rambunctious puppy.

The movie even goes out of its way to make unusually strong gay-positive statements. Sitting with his; perplexed wife, Rajani (Ellora Patnaik), their porch at night, Verghese reflects, 'I've come to know more about being a man from gay men than from straight appreciate art, to really listen to one another, be a friend." When he takes the thought a step further, admiring the sexual freedom of gay men "[They're] not: conditioned by what women will allow or wife walks away in a snit.

There's an overly deliberate quality in that scene and in others that spells out Verghese's thoughts and impressions as he encounters rural America, the medical establishment, and the "culture of disease." For all its fine intentions and the good work of its impressive cast, My Own veers into pamphleteering--and doesn't shed new light on a familiar subject.

Guthmann is a reporter and staff critic for the San Francisco
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Author:Guthmann, Edward
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Jul 21, 1998
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