A Merry War, directed by Robert Bierman (Vampire's Kiss), is a long-overdue screen adaptation of George Orwell's mercilessly witty novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying. First published in 1936, Aspidistra is vintage Orwell, an angry young man's book written in a heartfelt satirical vein. Bierman and screenwriter Alan Plater capture much of Orwell's vitriol and, perhaps more importantly, his heart in this lively cinematic tale of a struggling poet in 1930s London and the stylish woman who resolutely loves him.

When we first meet Gordon Comstock (Richard Grant), one of Orwell's 'landless gentry,' he is employed as the star copywriter in the advertising department of the New Albion Publishing Company. In the midst of the Depression, things could be a lot worse for Gordon: He has a devoted girlfriend in co-worker Rosemary (Helena Bonham Carter) and his work is appreciated even if he bristles at having to crank out headlines like 'New Hope for the Ruptured' and copy for Whiterose Pills for Female Disorders. 'The paths of glory lead but to the engraver,' Gordon mutters, but all that is about to change. Gordon's first book of poetry, a slim volume entitled Mice, has been accepted for publication and, though he should know better, Gordon quits his job to follow his poetic muse.

Not surprisingly, given his self-centeredness, Gordon doesn't adapt well to the freelance life. He rents a furnished room and takes a part-time position in a bookshop, where he treats patrons as virtual intruders. Though he embarks on a second poetry volume, to be called London Pleasures, Gordon discovers that a hand-to-mouth existence is anything but pleasurable. Luckily, his sister Julia (Harriet Walter), who waits tables in a tea shop, slips him free food and his publisher Ravelston (Julian Wadham) provides occasional small loans and bails him out of jail after a boisterous night of drinking. Gordon also takes comfort from Rosemary's steadfast faith in him and their ongoing battle-of-the-sexes banter which represents the 'merry war' of the title.

In a display of acting that recalls his work in Withnail and I (arguably the funniest and most iconic performance of 1980s English cinema), Grant is superb as the irksome but redeemable Gordon. Arrogant, vulnerable and verging on the preposterous, Gordon is hard to ignore, whether he's dismissing Shakespeare as 'a poor bugger, a second-rate character actor' or sniveling about a proposed picnic in the country, 'I reject the countryside, it's dark and there are animals.' Bonham Carter, in a welcome foray into comedy, is a perfect match for Grant, endowing Rosemary with a nice blend of wisdom, patience and humor.

In spite of Rosemary's good qualities, Gordon finds a way to dismiss her from his life as he sinks deeper into poverty. No longer able to pay for his lodgings, his first book of poems now reduced to thrupence, he winds up in Lambeth, a squalid, dangerous area south of the Thames, 'where even the tomcats walk in twos.' True to form, Gordon romanticizes the poverty of his new surroundings, but, true to her form, Rosemary hasn't given up on him. Their 'merry war' still has a few skirmishes left.

Orwell's novel took a pretty dim view of England's class system, with the drab but seemingly indestructible aspidistra of the title representing the bourgeois mindset. A Merry War is a bit gentler, thanks in large measure to Giles Nuttgens' luminous cinematography, Sarah Greenwood's observant production design and James Keast's stylish costumes. London in the 1930s, at least north of the Thames, looks not classist, but classical.

--Ed Kelleher