Dir: William Marsh. UK. 2000. 105mins.
Successful as they may be in the literary world, Martin Amis' books have proved resistant to cinema adaptation, the sole previous attempt being the anodyne and poorly-received 1989 version of The Rachel Papers. Dead Babies, Amis' second novel, written in 1974, has been a long time in coming to the screen: the rights were acquired more than 10 years ago by William Marsh, a US director, based in the UK, who adapted it initially as a play (his background is in directing for the theatre).
The makers have learned the lesson of The Rachel Papers and have come up with an adaptation that gives full play to the grotesquerie, absurdity, dark humour and misanthropy of the author's world. As a result, however, the film is likely to face a mixed reception: disdain from the broadsheets, more indulgent reviews in youth and style magazines. This, combined with the absence of major star names in the cast, means Dead Babies will need to build on strong word of mouth to establish itself as a cult item. The title will be a further liability in advertising the film and broadening its appeal beyond the immediate coterie of Amis fans.
Dead Babies was formed by the 1970s' nascent punk sensibility, which Marsh sees as still relevant and has updated for the movie, turning the villains of the piece, for instance, into internet-based terrorists. The story, which he describes as a hyper-real version of a classic Agatha Christie country house drama, brings together seven young Brits and three Americans in a rambling Gothic house on the outskirts of London for a weekend of sex, drugs and murder. They include: Giles (Condou), an upper-class alcoholic obsessed, in traditional Amis manner, with his teeth; the suave, clever, cynical Quentin (Bettany) and his new wife (Gilbreath); the short, fat, spotty, balding Keith (Nyman), who optimistically regards the house party as his chance to get laid; Marvel (Marsh), an American drugs guru; and the languid Diana (Williams).
The unbridled hedonism of this weekend is threatened by growing tensions between the Brits and the Americans, exacerbated by constant television news bulletins relaying the violent activities of a terrorist group called The Conceptualists. When one member of the party receives a threatening letter, suspicion falls on Marvel.
In the role of Marvel, Marsh might be a magical master of ceremonies, but, as the film's writer-director, he displays far less assurance. Although the screenplay has pruned back much of the novel's detail, its disjointed flashbacks and patchy voice-over narration bear testimony to difficulties in keeping a handle on the sprawling narrative, while the main players are too numerous and too broadly drawn for any of them - or their ultimate fates - to command consistent interest.
Among an able cast struggling to put flesh on the bones of their unpleasant, thinly-conceived characters, Bettany, playing the story's narrator and - to some extent - Amis' surrogate, brings something of the sexy menace of his young thug in Gangster No 1. Technical credits are adequate within the parameters of a modest budget.
Prod co: Gruber. Co-prods: Civilian Content, Outer Edge. UK dist: Redbus. Int'l sales: Overseas FilmGroup. Exec prod: Ben Hilton. Prods: Richard Holmes, Neil Peplow. Scr: William Marsh, based on the novel by Martin Amis. Cinematographer: Daniel Cohen. Prod des: Mark Tanner. Ed: Eddie Hamilton. Music: Mark Pember, Marvin Beaver. Main cast: Paul Bettany, Katy Carmichael, Hayley Carr, Charlie Condou, Alexandra Gilbreath, Marsh, Kris Marshall, Andy Nyman, Cristian Solimeno, Olivia Williams.