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Steadfast Combines History and Heart Into Triumph

Jillian Poe’s latest directorial effort, Steadfast is at once familiar and unfamiliar: a Regency romance set against the Napoleonic War, full of ballroom scenes and lavish costumes, crackling with politics and passion. It’s (extremely) loosely based on the 1940s novel of the same name, which in turn was based on the historical Will Crawford’s surviving letters and notes, and the romance is real in more than one way—assuming you haven’t been living under a rock, you’ve seen the stories about on-set melodrama: Colby Kent and Jason Mirelli hooking up, getting injured, falling in love, and from all reports being blissfully happy.

Leaving the behind-the-scenes drama aside, the question is: is it a good film?

The answer is unequivocally yes.

It’s more than good. It’s a brave film, in the best ways: not only in telling a historical gay love story—and it is very, very gay; Jillian Poe and her cast don’t shy away from sex scenes—but in the raw emotion and power of the storytelling and the relationship. It’s the kind of film that gets remembered as a landmark: what good filmmaking can do. And it’s worth seeing, not only for the attention to period detail or the reminder that gay people (and black people, Indian people, and others; we see an impressively diverse London, especially among Will’s Home Office fellow recruits) have always existed in history, but for the sheer emotional experience. Steadfast is a romance, unashamedly so, and it wants you to fall in love, and you will.

The casting and the script are spot-on, to start.

Jillian Poe has her favorite stable of actors, so some familiar faces won’t be a surprise. Colby Kent, also a producer, and given co-writing credit with Ben Rogers, stars as Will Crawford—Rogers and Jillian Poe have independently confirmed that Colby did on-set rewrites, which means most of what we see is likely his. We’ve discussed Colby and the industry and uncredited script work at length back when that news broke, so here I’ll just say that Colby is a better writer than any of us realized—good at knowing and utilizing the source material, but also paring down, choosing the exact right word for each moment, giving his fellow actors dialogue that sounds effortlessly natural. Odds on a Best Adapted Screenplay award or two? Pretty high, I’d say.                        

Speaking of Colby Kent, he’s always been quietly excellent on screen, often underrated (that Academy Award loss to Owen Heath should’ve gone the other way, no offense to Owen, who is also generally excellent), and equally capable of adorable clumsiness or aristocratic decadence. You could argue that playing young and wealthy and vulnerable and gay is exactly in his wheelhouse and hardly a stretch, and you might be right—but you would also be wrong.

It’s an award-winning performance. It’s a master class in complex character acting. It’s compelling and dramatic and the core of the film, at least half of it, more on which later.

Will Crawford—in ill health, a natural scientist, the Regency equivalent of a rich kid and only heir to a vast estate—might have come across as weak, or naïve and fragile, or in need of rescue. And Colby Kent’s good at fragile and lovely and desperate. But Will’s also a literal genius, determined to be useful, and willing to do anything—including spycraft and affecting the tide of battle and the fate of nations—to protect the man he loves. Colby Kent never lets us forget that, and the character and the story become richer for it. He’s almost at his best in moments without dialogue—I say almost because Colby, as ever, has flawless timing when delivering lines, both the heartbreaking and the wryly sarcastic. But his eyes and expressions say so much that every close-up could be a page’s worth of emotion-filled speeches, except not, because they’re not necessary. He’ll definitely get the Academy Award nomination; if there’s any justice, he’ll also win. Though, having said that, my personal vote might go to the biggest surprise of the film, just because I was so impressed and delighted. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

The supporting cast is also superb—Leo Whyte, as Jason’s second-in-command, embodies complicated and compassionate loyalty, someone who’d follow his captain into battle and also sympathize with his captain’s difficult love, given his own socially fraught marriage to a poor Irish girl (Kate Fisher, having a marvelous time and some of the funniest lines). John Leigh gives his performance as a conflicted would-be mutineer some delicate nuance—he still admires his captain and ultimately makes a painful personal choice. Jim Whitwell epitomizes workmanlike British gentlemanly acting—though we get a hint of the dirtiness of his profession, and of his sympathy for Stephen and Will, which adds layers to his performance. And young Timothy Hayes is worth watching as Stephen’s favorite optimistic midshipman, with deft comedic timing in the midst of storms and the stalking of a French ship.

The crown jewel of the supporting cast, of course—and the shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor—is Sir Laurence Taylor, notoriously picky about taking on new projects at this point, but here fully committed to his role as Will’s father, the aging Earl of Stonebrook.

It’s easy to say that Sir Laurence is a legend, but sometimes we forget what that means. In this role, we remember. He delivers words that cut right through his on-screen son, and by extension the audience; but his anguish and grief are equally genuine: he’s a man who loved and lost his wife, who doesn’t understand his only son and heir, who clings to the need to protect the family name and estate and future, while faced with the dual truths that his son prefers men to women and in any case might die young—of illness, if not from daring the world in Regency spycraft. The Earl is awful and vicious and cruel to Will—but watching Sir Laurence stand at his son’s bedside, or come to the window and silently watch his son depart for London…those moments will make you hurt for him despite yourself, and it’s a virtuoso piece of acting.

Speaking of brilliant pieces of acting, let’s talk about that biggest (and I don’t mean just the physique, though that can’t be missed) surprise of the film: Jason Mirelli.

First, a confession: I, like quite a few people, felt some skepticism about this casting choice. That’s not to insult action films as such, and Jason Mirelli’s been a consistently reliable action-hero lead. But it’s a very different genre, and Jason’s previous filmography hasn’t, let’s say, exactly indicated much dramatic range. (Having said that, I’ll admit to unironically loving Saint Nick Steel. Is it ridiculous? Yes. Is it hilarious absurd so-bad-it’s-amazing fun? Also yes. Does it have Jason Mirelli in an artistically torn shirt chasing terrorists through a shopping mall while protecting small children and wearing a hat that makes him the reincarnated spirit of Christmas? Hell yes it does. We watch it every year.)

If you, like me, were on the fence but willing to be convinced…

I’ll say it right now: Jason Mirelli should be on that Academy Award ballot alongside Colby Kent.

He’s the other half of the heart of this film, and the second he steps down from that carriage in the opening shot, he’s commanding the narrative. He’s captured the physicality of a wartime ship’s captain, but more than that, he’s captured the layers of character. Every motion of those shoulders, those eyes, that jawline, all means something—as do the moments when he chooses not to move and be still. Take the moment when he looks at Will in the morning-after scene, which is just a look and a few beats on camera, but Jason’s able to convey Stephen’s love, and wistful frustration over their different social classes, and genuine affection, and fear about Will’s illness, and surprised joy at having someone to wake up next to. It’s a hell of a role—romance, war, leadership on a ship’s deck, the shock when Will falls gravely ill, the emotion of the ending, which I won’t spoil here—and Jason’s a revelation. He’ll have his pick of roles after this, and he’ll deserve the Oscar nod, though it’s unlikely he’ll win—the Academy likes to reward previous nominees and is notoriously skeptical of popcorn-flick pedigrees, and Jason might need to prove himself once or twice more. But he shouldn’t have to. This is enough, and it’s fantastic to watch.

Part of that epic transformation should be credited to Jillian Poe’s direction. With Steadfast, Poe demonstrates her skill as a director and her ability to handle multiple genres—she started out, you might remember, with lighter romantic-comedy fare, often also with Colby Kent—and her ability to get quality performances from her actors, every single one, every single time. I also wouldn’t be surprised at her picking up a directorial award or two; it’s an ambitious project, and also a labor of love, which shines through in each frame.

The costuming and sets are as plush and attentive to detail as you would expect from an Oscar-bait period piece that’s a Jillian Poe production—that reputation for perfection’s deserved. The score is, if not anything out of the ordinary for a Regency setting, handled with delicacy and love—the music plays into the mood of each scene unobtrusively and expertly.

Fans of the novel might have some minor critiques involving the looseness of the adaptation, in particular the ending, which—let me offer a minor spoiler warning, no detail, but stop reading if you want to know nothing at all—adds a final sequence that provides a happy ending for Stephen and Will. Is it book-accurate? No. But I called Steadfast a brave film, earlier in this review, and this ending is an act of courage: imagining a happy ending for gay people in history, demanding that their love story end well and with joy. (And Colby Kent personally met with the novel’s famously reclusive author, so for all you purists, this change was made with permission.)

Those stories matter. Steadfast as a film matters. Go see it. Fall in love.