WHETHER IT'S "Pride and Prejudice" or "Sleepless in Seattle," the romantic comedy follows a relentless pattern: Two sympathetic protagonists, who from the outset we suspect are meant for each other, try to overcome the barriers that keep them apart (generally some mix of class, family, tribal or national identity and plain old personality quirks). Like most contemporary examples, English filmmaker Richard Spence's likable, loose-limbed London yarn "Different for Girls" blends this faith in individualism with an almost mystical reverence for love. There's no accounting for the force that binds two people together in the first place, for the idiosyncratic pathways of individual desire.
Yet even within those boundaries this film has bigger philosophical fish to fry. The most obvious obstacle keeping its central couple -- post-punk goofball Paul Prentice (Rupert Graves) and prissy, ladylike Kim Foyle (Steven Mackintosh) -- apart is that they used to be schoolmates, when Kim was called Karl and was a boy. Don't be misled by this; "Different for Girls" is not just another post-'80s identity politics movie (although it certainly treats transsexualism with the greatest respect). It isn't about realizing that you're gay or bisexual, or accepting that someone else is not the sex you thought they were. Like Kevin Smith's "Chasing Amy," it has a transcendent idea in view -- the idea that successful lovers must do away with all such reassuring categories and head out together into uncharted territory. As Kim herself explains to a prying prosecuting attorney late in the film, "Our relationship doesn't have a precise nature -- it never will."
If this is starting to sound like theory-driven spinach-art, fear not. Even as it brushes here and there against overweening earnestness, "Different for Girls" is always redeemed by its bright primary colors and irrepressible spirit and by the natural, unpretentious performances of its cast (featuring fine supporting work from Miriam Margolyes as Kim's mother-hen boss and Neil Dudgeon as her tormented military brother-in-law). In short, it's a lot of fun.
Best known for playing upper-crust characters in Merchant Ivory-style costume dramas, Graves is delightful as Paul, a 34-year-old leather-clad motorcycle messenger who has never emotionally graduated from the liberating ecstasies of late-'70s punk London. As survivors and fans of that era will quickly spot, director Spence and screenwriter Tony Marchant can't be too far from Paul's sensibility. The movie's title comes from a Joe Jackson song, early punk legend Ian Dury appears as a repo man after Paul's motorbike and the soundtrack features the unlikely likes of Wreckless Eric, Splodgenessabounds and Stiff Little Fingers. This is certainly the first thirtysomething cinema romance to feature both a Buzzcocks live gig and -- as a key gift from guy to girl -- a seven-inch single by the Only Ones.
Mackintosh's memorable performance as Kim, a dowdy post-operative transsexual who writes greeting-card verse, owns Art Deco lamps and does her best to fit in to conventional femininity, is a good deal more complicated. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about "Different for Girls," in fact, is what the filmmakers didn't do -- cast a woman, or a passable drag queen, in the role. While Mackintosh as Kim cuts a handsome figure in a sort of horsy, gawky way, and there's no hint of caricature in his acting, there's also no "Crying Game" illusion here. He's unmistakably mannish in the face and shoulders, and you'd never for a second believe he was born an official female. (Although the changes apparently effected in Mackintosh's body for the film's one nude scene will astonish you.)
In other words, Kim isn't a woman because she takes estrogen and has had her penis surgically transformed into a vagina, but because she says she is. If Paul is going to love her, that has to be good enough for him, even though their coupling is likely to mark him, in the world's eyes, as a gender-freak by association. Paul's growing unease and bewilderment, sparked when the film literally throws him in Karl/Kim's path 17 years after their ambiguous school friendship, are admirably exploited by Spence and the actors, and I daresay many straight male viewers will ride Paul's bumpy emotional road. Alternately attracted and repelled by Kim's transformation, he tries to pretend their dates aren't dates, brings her flowers and then -- surrounded by her rapaciously curious coworkers -- acts like they don't mean anything. On one hand, he avidly reads scientific books on transsexualism; on the other, he bulls through the contents of Kim's fussily arranged flat, pawing her dresses and heels, her hormone pills and vaginal dilator.
When Kim first moves to kiss Paul, he protests, "I am straight, you know." She responds, "So am I." But they and we know their relationship can never be as simple as that. Like many off-screen transsexuals, Kim wants more than anything else not to be noticed. After a drunken night when Paul's boorish confusion attracts the cops (a rather artificial crisis for this otherwise genuine film), Kim herself has to decide what she fears losing most: this dubious, painful, maybe-not relationship or her quiet life as a plausibly female wallflower. It's an unusually dramatic version of the choice we all face in relationships, between the sterile safety of prescribed roles and the terror of genuine emotional nakedness.