Oscar Wilde, then Edward Montagu.
By Lucy Doyle
From the unknown events that transpired in a beach house, to the courtroom trials that signaled the end of the persecution of homosexuality, to the first-ever motorcar museum, Lord Montagu is one winding road.
Austin-based filmmaker Luke Korem takes his audience on an intimate trip to England’s Beaulieu estate in Lord Montagu. While the English countryside scenery is gorgeous (Beaulieu, in fact, means “beautiful place”), it is hardly the highlight of this writer, director, and producer’s first feature-length film.
Edward Montagu became the lord of his 7,000-acre estate when he was 2½ years old, and there was never a time Montagu was unaware of his privilege. He always understood the need to contextualize his place in history with the immediacy of public opinion. As a man and an entity, he belonged to history as much as Beaulieu belonged to him.
At 25, Lord Montagu fully inherited Beaulieu at the close of World War II. There was massive destruction across Europe, and stately homes were often left in ruins. This is the story of an English country house and the fight to preserve the art and majesty of tradition, as well as finding one’s place in society even as sexual identity makes one a pariah.
Although “The Montagu Case” may not be familiar to viewers, not since the trials of Oscar Wilde was such a public figure maligned by newspaper headlines and in courtrooms for the “crime” of homosexuality. For an aristocrat with good looks, a charming personality, and a great deal of influence, this amounted to a social hanging in the town square.
Montagu’s story begins innocently enough at one of his weekend parties. As a self-described bohemian with bisexual proclivities, Montagu’s social circle would become a noose that social conservatives tried to hang him with.
A businessman rather than a victim, Lord Montagu fought to raise revenue for his endangered estate and salvage its reputation all at once. His father was responsible for introducing the motorcar to the royal family, and in so doing, jump-started the automobile’s popularity. Montagu decided to display his father’s collection of antique cars to the public in what would eventually become the National Motor Museum. Today, Beaulieu has seen over 15 million visitors.
With actor Oliver Tobias narrating directly from Montagu’s autobiography, Lord Montagu’s voice guides the story across layers of first-person accounts from close friends, aristocratic peers, and contemporary scholars of architecture and cars alike. Lord Montagu tells the story as Montagu lived it, and with enough decency to bring humanity to a disturbing subject. The lurid details of Montagu’s bisexuality are largely omitted in favor of the positive achievements he undertook to clear his family’s name. One shortcoming of this otherwise all-encompassing film is the way it glosses over the deep-seated homophobia that permeated British society. For a man whose life and home were on constant display throughout his life, the documentary gives little insight into the man’s personal life beyond his business dealings.
Beaulieu became somewhat of a Disneyland of stately homes as Lord Montagu tapped into the commercial desires of the public. He was seen by some as a revolutionary, and by others as vulgar. By winning over the public, he was maligned by his peers in the aristocracy. But in the end, he won out over his critics.
In a fitting postscript, Korem makes it known that Lord Montagu was appointed by the government as the first Chairman of English Heritage in 1983. His entire life was dedicated to preserving his family’s legacy, and he is now recognized in England as a historian who saved some of his country’s most important monuments.
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