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A Handful of Dust (1988)

PG | | Drama, Romance | 24 June 1988 (USA)
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


PG | See all certifications »




Release Date:

24 June 1988 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust  »

Box Office


$1,560,700 (USA)

Company Credits

Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs

Sound Mix:



Aspect Ratio:

1.66 : 1
See  »

Did You Know?


Fifteen years after the release of this film, Stephen Fry, who plays Reggie, would write, direct and co-star in Bright Young Things (2003), an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's earlier novel, Vile Bodies. 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

So Much For Infidelity
27 January 2013 | by (Greenwich, CT United States) – See all my reviews

"A Handful Of Dust" strikes one as a butterfly on a pin, beautiful to look at but rather pointless, apart from what's holding the poor butterfly. This cinematic adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh novel has all the same pieces, but lacks a sense of purpose beyond its own pointless existence.

In 1930s England, we meet Tony Last (James Wilby), country squire and "rather a stick" who dotes over his son and his grand but decaying estate, Hetton. This doesn't sit well with wife Brenda (Kristin Scott Thomas), who pines for the party scene in London. "I just thought it would be fun to eat someone else's food for a bit, that's all," she says when Tony shoots down a suggestion to pay a visit on one of her friends. Brenda has other options, it turns out, a young man named Beaver (Rupert Graves) with whom she takes up an affair that is common knowledge to everyone but Tony until a horrible accident brings everything in sharp focus.

There's nothing here not covered better in the novel, which has its own problems in terms of structure (namely an incongruous last act set in South America) but captures wonderfully a jaded social scene Waugh inhabited but despised. Reading "Handful Of Dust" is to be immersed in a world of clever beastliness, but an inert quality of cold cynicism hampers the film, which by following the novel as closely as it does suffers for the lack of Waugh's jabbing narration.

The principal actors all play their roles capably enough, but none find the right angle or empathy to make the film either wicked fun or emotionally involving. Judi Dench comes closest as Beaver's mercenary mother, crowing about a fatal house fire she expects to make money off redecorating. "Luckily they had that old-fashioned fire extinguisher that ruins everything," she purrs. But neither she nor any of the other savage Londoners that abet Brenda's cruelty give you much to hold onto. They say their lines, make their point, and the film rolls on.

Alec Guinness shows up late in the film as Mr. Todd, a sinister character who takes advantage of Tony in a curiously quaint way. "There is medicine for everything in the forest, to make you well...and to make you ill," is about as openly threatening as he gets, and it is enough. Still, even he doesn't bring enough life to the proceedings to make the film take off.

Director Charles Sturridge, who also co-wrote the film, gets in a lot of pretty pictures of period London and the rain forest, but he doesn't seem to have much of a vision of his own beyond capturing Waugh on film the same way he did with "Brideshead Revisited," the 1981 miniseries he co-directed. "Brideshead" though had many more hours to develop its subtle themes, and a better story besides of grace as well as ignominy. "Dust" just has the ignominy. It is not enough.

I really liked only one performance in the entire film, that of Alice Dawnay as a little girl named Winnie who accompanies her mother to Brighton and doesn't see why she can't have a seaside holiday even if her mother's there to help Tony amass evidence of sexual infidelity for a quick divorce. The girl's scenes with Wilby have the right lightness and energy to suggest a film moving on its own power, and not just going through the motions.

But for the most part, "Dust" delivers only a sad tale of ruined lives that fails to make you care about anyone who is in it. There's nothing in it that really stinks, yet the lack of a real point really hurts it in the end.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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