This two-hour movie first aired in the United Kingdom last year in the BBC’s “Gay Britannia” season, which marked the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act that began the decriminalization of gay sex. But “Man in an Orange Shirt,” which airs here on Sunday as an installment of PBS’s “Masterpiece,” is a powerful and intelligent piece in or out of that broader context. Written by novelist Patrick Gale, the story goes places you might not expect, exploring not only the historical and legal shaming of gay people but the internalization of that shame, the self-loathing that does plenty of damage on its own.
“Man in an Orange Shirt” is split neatly in halves — overseas, the two parts ran separately, but on WGBH-2, Sunday at 9 p.m., they will run together. I like them together; they gain resonance and reach from the other’s themes. The first hour is set in the 1940s, when an active gay man was at risk of going to prison. Michael Berryman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Thomas March (James McArdle) meet in World War II and fall deeply in love. But while Thomas, an artist, is prepared to live as a gay man back in the postwar world, Michael, a businessman, is dismayed by that idea. He marries his childhood sweetheart, Flora (Joanna Vanderham), and, with what seems like a mixture of nerve, innocence, and desperation, invites Thomas to the tiny ceremony.
Things go downhill from there, as Michael begins to regret his choice and Thomas moves on without him. It’s not a particularly original set-up, the doomed secret gay love that recalls “Brokeback Mountain” among many other movies, but the actors bring nice shadings to their characters, particularly McArdle, whose Thomas is victimized twice over and yet never the victim. Also, Gale does something unusual with the 1940s story line: He brings Flora’s tragedy to the forefront alongside that of the men. It’s not a full life, serving as a man’s beard, and anger is only one of the hard feelings she copes with. In a world where being gay is a crime, gays aren’t the only victims.
Flora is the connector to the second part of “Man in an Orange Shirt,” which is set in the present day. The older Flora, played with expertly contained emotion by Vanessa Redgrave, lives in a townhouse with her veterinarian grandson Adam (Julian Morris). Adam is gay, but he is in the closet with Flora. He’s extremely sexually active, hooking up with anonymous men daily with his dating app, but the thought of a real relationship with one of them turns him off. The world may be more accepting of gay men than it was in his grandfather’s day, but his shame is deeply embedded. Trauma and culture, the movie makes clear, can be passed down through generations.
I was afraid the message of “Man in an Orange Shirt” would be simplistic — being gay was hard then, but it’s easy now, look how far we’ve come, etc. But the film, strewn with symbols that carry from one story to the other, has other things in mind, and they make it distinctly moving.
MASTERPIECE: MAN IN AN ORANGE SHIRT
Starring: Julian Morris, Vanessa Redgrave, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, James McArdle, Joanna Vanderham, Laura Carmichael, Julian Sands, Adrian Schiller, Frances de la Tour
On: WGBH-2, Sunday at 9 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.