The Waugh Correspondent
Stephen Fry's dazzling Vile Bodies adaptation: Bright Young Things.
"Oh, I say. Nina, there's one thing—I don't think I shall be able to marry you after all."
"Oh, Adam, you are a bore."
That's Adam Fenwick-Symes talking on the phone to his occasional fiancee, Nina Blount, early in Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, the basis for the ripping new film Bright YoungThings (ThinkFilm), directed by Stephen Fry. When you read an exchange like that, it's pretty clear what the tone and the emotional temperature of the book is going to be. But the thing about Waugh (I wanted to write "the deuced thing about Waugh"—his upper-crust Britishisms are nearly as infectious as P.G. Wodehouse's) is that for all the blithe insouciance (and madcap hilarity), the novel is melancholy at its core. Waugh's portrait of gossip-mongering, celebrity-worshipping, pleasure-seeking upper-class twits (some filthy rich, many penniless) in the decades between the world wars is shot through with a distinctive insanity. The embrace of superficiality is desperate bordering on demonic: anything to keep from facing the horror of what had been and of what was sure to come.
The novel, written in 1930, anticipated not just a second world war but a tabloid culture that would become, if anything, more fevered: One could plug in Page Six and Iraq, and Vile Bodies would seem even more startlingly contemporary. Fortunately, Fry has done nothing so idiotic. The director and screenwriter—best known in this country for playing Jeeves to Hugh Laurie's Bertie Wooster, and for his soulful embodiment of Oscar Wilde in an otherwise so-so biopic—has kept the shape of Waugh's book and choice swatches of his dialogue. I could quibble with the conventionally romantic ending and a couple of small but not-so-cosmetic alterations, but on the whole, this is just how I'd always imagined one of my favorite comic novels should look and sound. Better still, Fry doesn't just channel Waugh. He has his own distinctive attack—a restless, high-strung morbidity.
From the get-go, he gives Bright Young Things a propulsive thrust: an "Inferno" costume ball that has been crashed by one of the city's most antic gossip columnists, Mr. Chatterbox—aka Lord Simon Balcairn (James McAvoy). The scene isn't in the book, but it launches the film with a jazz-era bongo beat and angled, red-drenched close-ups of the satanic revelers—and of the gossip-hound spy who, unmasked, makes a swashbuckling getaway. "Lord" notwithstanding, the Balcairns have fallen on hard times, Simon being the last of the line. (Come to think of it, "Lord Notwithstanding" would be a good name for a novel that includes a "Lord Chasm," Prime Minister Outrage," and "Mrs. Melrose Ape.") The line that Simon has to walk—getting the goods without getting booted from the party-invite lists—is driving him mad; while McAvoy is around for only the first half, his manic hysteria infuses the film. (Those lucky enough to have seen the BBC miniseries State of Play will remember him as the impudent son of editor Bill Nighy.)
Stephen Campbell Moore and Emily Mortimer play the ingenue couple, Adam and Nina, whose engagement status changes according to Adam's fortunes: When he absurdly comes by money, it's on; when he absurdly loses it, it's off. Moore, a stage actor in his film debut, couldn't be better: His Adam is grounded yet dazed enough by the prevailing dementia to keep from becoming a stick-in-the-mud. (English actors, with their farce training, are better than Americans at keeping emotions real when the pacing is briskly artificial.) Mortimer, normally a ravishingly pretty actress, is unflatteringly coiffed and costumed (a black-and-white striped flapper number looks especially horrid), but those squinched-up bedroom eyes are undimmed, and she has developed a breathy, Joan Greenwood/Glynis Johns purr that gives the capricious Nina a bewitching musicality.
Good as they (and McEvoy) are, the movie is stolen by another stage actor new to film with the Waugh-like moniker Fenella Woolgar. As the dizzy socialite Agatha Runcible, she's hardly the picture of elegance: She has a big, hooked schnoz and a sibilant "s." But Woolgar's lack of conventional attractiveness makes her Agatha more lovable: The woman dominates by sheer, glittery-eyed force of will. Agatha is the movie's barking-mad mascot—the first to arrive at every party, the last to leave, and the most incorrigible in the face of fatigue or ill circumstance. The real world could not impinge on her consciousness for a second or the whole delusional bubble would collapse—indeed, it does collapse when she's mistakenly handed the wheel of a race car and has a vision of "all of us going round and round at a motor race and none of us will stop."
Bright Young Things is a study in collective lunacy, and the collection of actors that Fry has assembled is a disciplined bunch of loons. Peter O'Toole shows up as Nina's dad, Colonel Blount: Age and illness have made him sound more and more like his mate in A Lion in Winter, Katharine Hepburn, but his timing is still genius. This is a performance that reminds you how self-serving the dottiness of the English ruling class is—he's senile like a fox. Jim Broadbent is almost unrecognizable as "the Drunken Major"—a caricature so extreme (there have been drunken English majors in movies, but never one this major) that you're laughing even when you can't decipher a slurry word. Dan Aykroyd holds his own as the Canadian transplant Lord Monomark; Stockard Channing makes the most of too-few moments as the American moral crusader Mrs. Ape; and Julia McKenzie has two indelible scenes as Lottie Crump, the mistress of Adam's hotel for members of the ruling class who've been overruled.
My ideal panoramic comedy would have more panoramas: Fry prefers flurries of tight close-ups. (Perhaps he doesn't want the movie compared to Altman's Gosford Park.) And I'm puzzled why Lord Balcairn's kamikaze final Mr. Chatterbox installment was altered from the book's vision of the English aristocracy throwing down its jewels in a born-again frenzy to a more humdrum orgy. But the director gets the big thing right. The film is both gay and suffused with futility, both phantasmagoric and matter-of-fact. Fry loves these ghastly people—enough to make Bright Young Things a better title than Vile Bodies. Say what you will, they're never a bore.