BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS
Despite his literate style, acerbic wit and Catholic theology, Evelyn Waugh has fared well in the studio. Brideshead Revisited, the renowned BBC miniseries, must be the most faithful adaptation of book to screen ever achieved. Surprisingly, for he was an elitist when it came to art and culture, Waugh used movies as a model for prose. "Try and bring home thoughts by actions and incidents," he wrote to a school chum while at university, at a time when talkies were a novelty. "Don't make everything said. This is the inestimable value of the Cinema to novelists."
Bright Young Things, Stephen Fry's imaginative interpretation of Waugh's Vile Bodies, proves the budding writer was onto something, although he wasn't yet prepared to follow his own advice. The young satirist intended to skewer London's smart set, populating his second novel with broadly drawn characters with names like Outrage (a philandering prime minister) who complain about institutions such as The Daily Excess (a guilty-pleasure gossip rag). Fry, in a rare instance of a filmmaker fleshing out a novel, treats the characters far more sympathetically than did Waugh himself. Indeed, Fry boldly appends a new ending to the story that is as sentimental as Waugh's finale was cynical.
The set-up in both narratives is essentially the same, however. A hopeful if ingenuous writer named Adam Fenwick-Symes (played by newcomer Stephen Campbell Moore) returns to England from Paris, where he has finished a book he hopes will earn him enough money to marry his beloved, Nina Blount (Emily Mortimer). Income is all-important, for Nina descends from England's fading aristocracy; with the great crash behind them and war on the horizon, the jaded rich desperately want the party to continue.
Alas, Adam has his manuscript confiscated ("If we can't stamp out literature in the country," complains the customs officer, "we can at least stop its being brought in from outside") and the ensuing adventures follow his desultory attempts to pull together enough pounds to support a wife. The whole business flirts with farce, with Adam winning a thousand pounds on a silly bet from the obscenely rich Ginger ("a bland, natty, mustachioed young man," played just so by David Tennant). Naturally, our impulsive hero places his windfall on a nag recommended by a sot (Jim Broadbent as the Drunk Major), who immediately disappears, forcing Adam to take a job as Mr. Chatterbox at a tabloid run by Lord Monomark (Dan Aykroyd, reprising the supercilious Edwardian he patented in The House of Mirth).
Waugh, and Fry in his adaptation, heighten the lampoon by moving the cast of characters from f'te to f'te, their ennui relieved with cocaine and champagne. Adam is made to visit Nina's dotty father (Peter O'Toole), who confuses his daughter's suitor for a vacuum-cleaner salesman. There are droll cameos by the likes of Mrs. Melrose Ape (Stockard Channing), an evangelist who travels with a choir of nubile angels, and the exiled King of Anatolia (Simon Callow), who stays comfortably numb on liquor bought by noble-minded Americans. Flamboyantly gay Myles Malpractice (Michael Sheen), silly Agatha Runcible (Fenella Woolgar) and other self-indulgent, effete folk get into a scrape at an auto race, Waugh's metaphor for a society careening out of control, one addicted to technological novelties and frenetic socializing. "Oh, what a lot of parties," wrote Waugh in a passage transcribed by Fry, "all that succession and repetition of massed humanity…those vile bodies."
That Waugh's world seems so much like our own no doubt prompted Fry to take on the project, the actor's first as writer and director. But Waugh ends his story on a forlorn battlefield somewhere in France--foreshadowing World War II by a decade--with one of Mrs. Ape's angels, transformed into a prostitute, consorting with the Drunk Major, elevated to a general. Fry eschews this Beckettian cri de coeur for an unabashedly romantic rendezvous. Though this change is out of sync with Waugh's gallows humor, it suits Fry's kinder, gentler comic vision. Bright Young Things flirts with despair, but Fry isn't predicting World War III. And for that, we should all take heart.
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