A Handful of Dust (1988)

PG  |   |  Drama, Romance  |  24 June 1988 (USA)
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Ratings: 6.8/10 from 1,407 users  
Reviews: 26 user | 13 critic

The wife's affair and a death in the family hasten the demise of an upper-class English marriage.


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Nominated for 1 Oscar. Another 3 wins & 3 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Tony Last
Brenda Last
Richard Beale ...
Jackson Kyle ...
John Andrew
Norman Lumsden ...
Jeanne Watts ...
Kate Percival ...
Miss Ripon
Richard Leech ...
Roger Milner ...
Tristram Jellinek ...
Richard Last
Mrs. Rattery
John Beaver
Mrs. Beaver


We see the detritus of an abandoned camp in South America and a main character's hallucination. Then, the story beings. Tony and Brenda Last, lord and lady, live on his enormous estate with their young son. Tony's not much for parties, and Brenda joins London society, on the arm of a penniless man, John Beaver, a hanger-on at Tony's club. John is encouraged by his entrepreneurial mother, who sees a quid in Tony and Brenda. Brenda and John become lovers, Brenda spends more and more time in London, and Tony's without a clue. Then, bringing things to a head are tragedy, law suits, greed, and what should be a few-months' expedition to Brazil. We are each of us merely a handful of dust. Written by <jhailey@hotmail.com>

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis


Drama | Romance


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Release Date:

24 June 1988 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust  »

Box Office


$1,560,700 (USA)

Company Credits

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Technical Specs

Sound Mix:



Aspect Ratio:

1.66 : 1
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Did You Know?


Actors James Wilby and Rupert Graves play love rivals in A Handful of Dust (1988) but in the previous year's Merchant Ivory film Maurice (1987) they played lovers. See more »


Referenced in The Benchwarmers (2006) See more »


King Of Love My Shepherd Is
Traditional Irish melody
Words by Henry W. Baker (1868)
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User Reviews

Fair adaptation, but a watered-down result
17 March 2002 | by (Sydney, Australia) – See all my reviews


Evelyn Waugh was one of the most stylish writers of his generation and the deceptively simple prose of his early mordant satires ('Decline and Fall', 'Vile Bodies') stands up very well today. 'A Handful of Dust,' written during the break-up of his first marriage to Evelyn Gardiner ('She-Evelyn') is more personal and less comic, and more concerned with the consequences of the characters' lack of personal morality. This film version by Charles Sturridge, who was earlier jointly responsible for a fine TV version of 'Brideshead Revisited,' is a worthy attempt to do justice to the novel, but perhaps he need not have bothered.

The film follows the novel as published in England – a US edition had a different, happy ending - though for space reasons some incidents are omitted (eg the drunken night at the sleazy 'Old Hundredth' club). Tony Last (James Wilby) is a pleasant young dim Tory gentleman, the proud owner of Hetton Abbey, a pile of Victorian Gothic bombast, and the attentive but slightly baffled husband of Lady Brenda (Kristen Scott-Thomas), elegant, aristocratic, and bored to death after seven years of country life. They have a cute six-year old son, John Andrew (Jackson Kyle), who seems to relate better to his nanny and riding instructor than to his parents, who are equally awkward with him. A young man called John Beaver (Rupert Graves) invites himself to stay, and Brenda, despite Beaver's vacuity, decides to have an affair with him, renting a small flat in Mayfair from Beaver's mother (Judi Dench) for the purpose.

Then an accident occurs which prompts Brenda to reveal her affair to Tony (almost everyone else in their circle knows of it already) and leave him. Tony, having met an explorer named Messinger, sets off with him to Guyana, South America, in search of a lost city, but the expedition falls apart and Tony is rescued by Todd (Alec Guinness), a part-white man living with the Indians. Todd wants someone to read him Dickens, and Tony finds himself a prisoner.

The re-creation of life at Hetton; mists over the park, the huge, overdecorated house (Carlton Towers, Yorkshire, is a perfect match for the fictional Hetton Abbey), the attentive servants, the elegant meals, house parties, Sunday morning at church, the ritual of foxhunting etc, is all beautifully done. We see why Brenda is bored (even if Anjelica Huston's character does drop in by plane), but it is not so easy to see why Brenda takes after Beaver. Jock (a wooden Pip Torrens), young MP, friend of the family and an old boyfriend of Brenda's, seems a much more likely choice, obsessed as he is with the politics of pig-farming. Kristen Scott-Thomas is fine in the role of Brenda but the script lets her down a little. As Tony, James Wilby projects just the right air of amiable, good-natured dimness. We feel sorry for him even as his unlikely fate assumes an air of inevitability. A youthful Rupert Graves gives us a callow and colourless Beaver, egged on by his ambitious mother.

The change of scene from England to Guyana is somewhat abrupt, though signalled in the script, and it's almost as if we are watching a different movie. This is not necessarily the filmmaker's fault as Waugh backed an earlier short story of his 'The Man Who Loved Dickens' into the first two-thirds of the novel, which is a kind of prequel to the short story. Yet the events of the whole novel bear close correspondence to Waugh's own experiences, his marriage break-up mentioned above, and a journalistic trip he made to Guyana as a kind of therapy. Unlike the unlucky Tony, Waugh returned from the jungle to tell this, and several other mordant tales.

Here the film-makers were not able to give visual expression to Waugh's mood. Perhaps different music might have helped – the theme for 'Brideshead' was perfect. For the most part the actors were well-cast, but they were pinned down by the close adherence of the scriptwriters to the novel's dialogue.

21 of 23 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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