Saturday, April 12, 2008

Understated hysteria (Film - Bright Young Things)


The struggle to keep the champagne bubbling when it's gone flat is the action filling Evelyn Waugh's 1930 satire of the British upper classes Vile Bodies. Stephen Fry's film adaptation, Bright Young Things released in 2003 captures the feel of one, long, desperate party swirling between the world wars. The shooting of wild party that opens the film is breathlessly manic. Jim Broadbent, Stockard Channing, Peter O'Toole, Simon Callow, Stephen Campbell Moore, Emily Mortimer, James Mcavoy, Imelda Stuanton, and Fenella Woolgar are some of the beautifully cast actors who maintain an understated hysteria, if you can imagine understated hysteria. I remembered loving this film when it came out, that's why I've ended up owning it. But I hadn't actually watched it all the way through since I'd bought it, so I hadn't remembered how acid-perfect it is. How desperately these poor characters want to forget that there's a world outside their party! A gossip columnist who is a member of the peerage who would kill himself for being caught sneaking in to a party he was not invited to. A drugged socialite who ends up driving a race car off the track, crashing it, and ending up in a lunatic asylum where her friends throw her a cocktail party. A penniless young man who wins a thousand pounds to marry his love, allows a very drunk major to bet it on a horse... well you really have to see it for yourself. The love that this director and his artists have for these characters is what impresses me about the film the most. It would be so easy to show us in capital letters how vile these people are - how silly, how louche, how fey - but no. Instead they love them to death and you come to feel deeply for the people hiding behind these frail facades. Fenella Woolgar is beautifully ridiculous but never unbelievable as the lunatic in the race car. Jame McAvoy (just in Atonement) is the Earl- gossip columnist. He gives a high strung and stunningly vulnerable performance. Stephen Campbell Moore, whose worked I've already gushed about in The History Boys, plays Adam Fenwick-Symes, a character of more bubbly insouciance here. Even in an outgoing role, he acts with a quiet specificity, full of honest human details. His character, Fenwick-Symes' book on the upper classes is impounded by customs when he returns to Britain at the film's opening, he returns to his hotel and his landlady greets him with his unpaid bill. He wins a thousand pounds only to lose it five minutes later, and yet he dons his tuxedo, dances a tango by himself in his girlfriend's apartment, and together they go to a party with their fellow bright young things as they fiendishly try to escape what they say they dread the most - boredom, convention. The Waugh book actually pre-dates World War II by several years, but the film makes that party into the race car that finally must be driven smack into the wall of the Second World War to come to a stop. This would be depressingly sad in any other hands but in Waugh's and Fry's it is somehow wicked, hilarious, and brilliant. Raveworthy.

6 comments:

Imani said...

I remember loving this movie right up until the end -- didn't it finish with an epilogue-like, contrived happy ending after the feller returns from the battle field? I think it was the one.

Either way it definitely reasserted Evelyn Waugh as an author-to-read.

By the by I thought this article might interest you: The neuroscience delusion. Takes a swipe at some weird new "neuroasthetics" trend in literary criticism.

Ted said...

Imani - Thanks for that link - excellent article. I agree with his analysis - Byatt's critique is almost absurdly reductive.

It's interesting to read your take on the epilogue of the film. You indeed remember the events correctly, however I didn't take it so much as happy-ing it up as forcing the characters, Adam Symes in particular, to come smack up against something that reveals to him what is important. If you remember, he "buys" her back from the man she married. What I liked about this is that a) he is still true to character and b) it's an absurd enough action that it's consistent with the satirical tone of the book.

Katherine said...

I've been looking forward to reading Vile Bodies for a while. This modern film adaptation sounds good, too.

Christopher Willard said...

If you can't get enough of the 1930's beyond Fitzgerald, try out John O'Hara's Appointment in Sammara that really captures a moment in time.

chris

http://christopherwillardnovelist.blogspot.com/

Thomas said...

I could not agree with you more. I love this film. The scene where Fenella Woolgar's character comes into breakfast at No. 10 Downing Street and doesn't realize it is hilarious. I kind of feel like Woolgar steals the show.

Ted said...

Thomas - She's pricelessly clueless, that is a great scene! I recently saw her live on stage at the National Theatre in a less than stellar production, so I'm withholding judgment and in an episode of Dr. Who, so far her work in Bright Young Things outstrips them both.