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When choosing to adapt this film, why would you throw away many of the gifts (easy wins, five-yard tap-ins, call them what you will) that Waugh's novel offers the film-maker? The dialogue sparkles on the page, and the set pieces come thick and fast, but the film misses much of the good stuff out, particularly early on in the action, or simply botches it. Waugh's characters also offer plenty of scope for effective adaptation to the screen, but the film makes a rather mushy attempt at most of the character portrayals too, despite the efforts of a strong cast.
Waugh's biting humour is dulled and debased from the start, reaching almost "Carry on"-like levels of simplicity. Paul is spuriously turned into a birdwatcher for about four seconds at the start of the action for the purpose of making smutty hints at a sex comedy that the film doesn't deliver (see also the publicity posters). The potential for sexual transgression that shimmers under the surface of Waugh's writing is also botched; the film spells it out rather demurely (this was the 1960s, when censorship was still very strict), while aiming desperately for superficial titillation.
There are so many simply baffling choices in terms of character and action that it's hard to know where to start. That's not to say a film can't be successful if it doesn't stick close to the source - of course it can, but it has to add something new or interesting or unusual, or stand on its own two feet as a piece of art. This extraordinary effort does none of these things.
The film is almost rescued by some of the settings (but not the ludicrous prison, with its gurning, overacting warders), by the luminous Genevieve Page, and by the occasional neat touch. But surely it's time for somebody like Stephen Fry to show (again) how a Waugh adaptation should be done? A film to watch for Waugh completists only,I'm afraid. Just shield your eyes from the worst of the butchery.
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