Dir: Stephen Fry. UK. 2003. 105 mins
Actor, author, wit and incomparable awards host, Stephen Fry can now add auteur to his considerable list of achievements. The renaissance man of British entertainment, Fry has captured all the anxious, frazzled spirit of Evelyn Waugh's novel Vile Bodies in an exuberant directorial debut.
A polished affair that unfolds to the sound of Noel Coward songs and the popping of champagne corks, this brittle, star-studded social satire will appeal to the same sophisticated audience who savoured Fry's television ventures into the world of P.G Wodehouse, journeyed to the cinema for Gosford Park or merely admire the craftsmanship of a loving literary adaptation.
Adapted for the screen by Fry, Waugh's 1930 novel is a breathless, relentlessly breezy assault on a jazz age Britain drunk on the cult of celebrity and obsessed by the latest antics of the rich and clueless. The modern resonances are obvious without being laboured. From the opening shot, Fry is out to dazzle as he evokes the manic energy and bohemianism of the period with a flurry of colours and costumes, fast cuts, dissolves and iris-in and iris-out shots.
He immediately establishes a swashbuckling tone that disperses any suspicion that his approach might be stagey or favour the theatrical. The film may be camp, arch and decidedly louche but it is cinematic. Fry underlines that this is a society on the brink of collapse by setting the film in a compressed fresco of the 1930s, complete with references to Mrs Wallis, Mussolini and the declaration of war between Britain and Hitler's Germany that would change the social and political fabric of Twentieth Century Britain forever.
He captures a decadent world of parties and soirees, scandal and gossip where the only sins are boredom and penury. He also makes us aware that these are people who are not waving but drowning as they eagerly cling to any pleasure or drug that will distract them from the empty days and shallow lives that they lead. The tone and pitch of the film change as the giddy, feverish swirl of social events eventually tumbles into the downside of despair, suicide and disgrace.
There are even quiet, touching moments as a jolly socialite loses her hold on reality, a gossip columnist commits suicide and a flamboyant gay character sneaks out of the country to avoid arrest. Fry finds the poignancy in their plight but seems more at ease with high comedy than stark drama.
Moralistic and serious-minded in its observations, Bright Young Things is primarily fast paced and often very funny especially when the starry senior cast are let loose on their colourful, larger than life characters. The more notable performances here include Dan Aykroyd's bullish newspaper magnate, Stockard Channing's finger-wagging American evangelist, Julia Mackenzie's warmhearted hotel proprietor and some moments to treasure in the uproarious company of Peter O'Toole as a splendidly dotty aristocrat. One can only assume that Alan Cumming was otherwise engaged when it came to rounding up an appropriate cast.
Dominated by high society grotesques and carefree excess, the film finds its humanity in the central story of Adam (Moore), a penniless aspiring novelist determined to marry the beautiful Nina (Mortimer). A wide-eyed witness to the extravagances and insecurities of his peers, he retains some vestiges of a soul as all around abandon themselves to hedonistic pleasure. Adam is the one eventually disgusted by so many vile bodies and the one who finds redemption in wartime service.
In Fry's adaptation, it is a love story that eventually emerges from the gaudy shadows of Waugh's elegiac satire. A neglected figure in an age that rushes to film every last page of Dickens, Jane Austen or Henry James, Waugh has clearly fallen out of favour as a source of inspiration for contemporary filmmakers. The 1960s saw adaptations of Waugh's The Loved One(1965) and Decline And Fall (1968). Fry's affectionate version of Vile Bodies should raise the spirits of Waugh aficionados although those not seduced by his freewheeling wit and caricature may find the figures here more frightful young things than bright young things which will limit its appeal.
On the other hand, this might just be the film to reawaken interest in Waugh's body of work. Certainly, the plush production design, vintage costumes and elaborate settings all add to the richness of a film that feels grander than its budget and considerably enhance the visual allure of a jaunty, comic production.
Prod co...Revolution Films/Doubting Hall Ltd
Int'l sales...The Works. Tel: 020 7612-1080. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Prod...Gina Carter, Miranda Davis
Exec prods...Andrew Eaton, Michael Winterbottom, Stephen Fry, Chris Auty, Neil Peplow, Jim Reeve, Steve Robbins.
Scr...Fry from the Evelyn Waugh novel Vile Bodies
Prod des...Michael Howells
Main cast...Stephen Campbell Moore, Emily Mortimer, Michael Sheen, Dan Aykroyd, Jim Broadbent, Stockard Channing, Julia McKenzie, John Mills, Peter O'Toole, Bill Paterson etc