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At the end of this film, one wants to wash one's hands of the
unmitigated cruelty pervading the atmosphere. The deliberate pace of
the thirties setting (beautifully portrayed using the right houses, and
suitable sets and costumes) ensures that every nuance of behaviour is
clearly understood by the audience, and this is the great strength of
the film. As I haven't read the book, but believe this is a faithful
adaptation, I can commend both Charles Sturridge and the superb actors
for translating what must be a difficult, but brilliant, novel by
Evelyn Waugh, not only into an impressive film, but one that conveys
thirties morals and social privilege in a way that rings true for
today's 21st century attitudes.
I think this is the best performance I have ever seen by James Wilby. Cuckolded by his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas in a fantastic debut performance), suffering from the death of his only son, he turns from a kind and gentle husband to one who wreaks revenge on his wife by cutting off all financial support. His agony over his son is exactly restrained in the manner of the period, his embarrassment over setting up the grounds for divorce by being caught in flagrante, his bewilderment when one would think he should be released from torment but is trapped by a vindictive eccentric (Alec Guinness, as usual, quite amazing) in the middle of the jungle, after nearly dying of fever, is a tour de force. This is his film, but Kristin Scott-Thomas (who was the original reason I watched this film in the first place), is simply delightful as the spoil, bored wife who can't resist Rupert Graves's boyish charm and dilettante lifestyle. No wonder Robert Altman chose her for Gosford Park; she is made for these roles. Her character's brittle insouciance, total selfishness and insensitivity, her lack of concern for her husband and son while she pursues alleviation from boredom with Rupert Graves, is reminiscent of Daisy Buchanan's behaviour in The Great Gatsby. Kristin Scott-Thomas shows a sophistication and acting aplomb which is breathtaking.
Rupert Graves is convincing as the shallow man-about-town sponging off others but seducing charming to the ladies; Judi Dench gives a lovely cameo as his bourgeois mother; Cathryn Harrison is good as Millie, who is supposed to provide the evidence for the divorce; and Alec Guinness in one of his final roles, is chillingly menacing.
I recommend this movie to anyone who enjoys a good story well told, excellent acting, and a period setting.
I will admit, I was not a fan of this film during the first fifteen
minutes when it nearly went into the "Period Film Sleeping Bag"
category, but after you get through this first hump (which is to wean
out the naysayers) this is a very disturbing and thoughtful film. In
fact, I loved it. It took me awhile to think about it after the first
viewing, but I was very impressed. Not only did this film break the
boundaries of the dreaded "Period Piece Snore-fest", but also the
standard of some films dating after 1988. When I watch films from the
80s, I normally do not see this caliber of writing and intensity. While
it may have been around, most films were not ready to dive headfirst
into it yet, but apparently Charles Sturridge has no fear. Instead, he
gives us a biting story about social decline and satire, while all the
while luring us deeper into this very depressive world. Amazing actors,
an extremely powerful story, and an ending that will knock your socks
off, A Handful of Dust was an unexpected, yet much needed, surprise.
Feeling like a combination of Requiem for a Dream and Angels & Insects, this period piece film offers more than just torrid love affairs and snobbery, it gives us this brief, yet powerful, glimpse into a world turned upside down by the squandering of a woman. I don't mean to sound sexist, but Sturridge does paint a picture where Kristin Scott Thomas' portrayal of Brenda does not paint a pretty picture of the perfect marriage. When Tony is left time and time again with John Andrew while Brenda is off gallivanting around London with John Beaver, our emotions are not placed within Brenda's arms, we care about Tony and his reaction if he were to ever discover the truth. Unlike other period piece films, we sympathize with the husband in this case, and ultimately open so wide to him that when the dramatic, and bizarre, ending occurs, we are left flabbergasted. It almost doesn't compute, but then you think about it and realize that Sturridge is a brilliant director using techniques well beyond his time.
Kristin Scott Thomas does a great job with the material that she is given. Her puppy-dog eyes seem to flutter and keep James Wilby's Tony at bay. I think that is what fascinated me about her character was that she portrayed this feeling of innocence, yet she was in complete control of the situation. That is why I think Rupert Graves' character was the most under-appreciated of them all. While some will see him as the villain of his film, I saw him as just a random person that happened to fall in love with a woman that reciprocated back, and happened to see the advantages of falling in love with her. He wanted to get rich quick, and this was his answer. Thomas could have stopped at any time and went back into the arms of Tony, but she chose not to, even with all of her innocence. Guinness surprised the daylights out of me with his role in this film, well, I guess he always does. Then there was Wilby, the most multi-layered character of the film. He showed us all the true love does exist, and that good husbands do as well. He did nothing wrong during the course of this film, yet somehow felt life hit him the most. The events that happen during this film continually to the ending happened directly to him, not really to anyone else. That surprised me. Here was a man that had all the money in the world, a gorgeous house, and a family, but found that luck was never on his side. Together, these three powerful plays hurdle through a tough film to give some genuine thought-provoking performances.
Then there was Sturridge who did his homework secretly in the darkness of his own basement to help bring this film to the silver screen. Most of Hollywood would have probably changed the story to bring about some final satisfaction. This is not the case with Sturridge who keeps the mood and themes of the film in constant view of us. We consider these people high society, with their hunting moments and huge houses, but the reality of it is that they face the same troubles that we, the normal person, do daily. They may have money, but they are human, and that is what Sturridge keeps with us during the course of the 118 minutes. He captures your attention with the characters, throws in some Twilight Zone scenes, and allows your imagination to work overtime. Anytime that a director pulls your mind into a film, the battle is already half won. This was my kind of film.
Overall, I was very impressed. This film broke me of my feeling that all period piece films were bad and dull, and had me drooling for more. While I know that not all will be like this, I cannot wait to see what other directors will dive headfirst into this untapped pool. The cinematography was pure 80s, the actors did their parts, and Sturridge brilliantly colored the themes and satires. I was surprised (and still shocked) by this film and cannot wait to show it to others now that is the true test of a great film.
Grade: ***** out of *****
WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILER
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.
An 18th-century English writer, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, once wrote (putting Alexander Pope in his place): "Satire should, like a polished razor keen, wound with a touch that's scarcely felt or seen". This is exactly what Evelyn Waugh's novel A Handful Of Dust does and the film, in my view, fully does the novel justice. Waugh's satire here is very underplayed, very understated and very funny, but none the less utterly lethal for all that. Charles Sturridge and his fellow screenwriter's have, as far as I can see, stuck extremely close to the novel, which is no bad thing as Waugh was an extremely economical writer and there would be little point in trying to gild the lily. Although Waugh wrote his novel as a young man, his thorough dislike of modernity - which he regarded as insincere cant - in every shape or form is already apparent and he mercilessly sends up its more vicious aspects. But Waugh was too intelligent just to hate for hate's sake: it was the loss of admirable qualities in favour of 'progress' which upset him. So in the novel and film Tony Last behaves well to everyone despite a great many people, not least his 'modern' wife Brenda, treating him appallingly badly. He is loyal, values tradition, honest, accommodating and indulgent and in return loses everything. Brenda is conventionally sweet but is simply a self-centred monster who lives without a thought for anyone, and always gains what she wants. One reviewer here complained that 'nothing' happens in the film. Not a bit of it. A great deal happens but everyone is so polite and well-brought up that no one, not even Tony, questions the huge injustice of it all. If you are reading these reviews while considering whether to see this film, bear in mind the quotation with which I started my contribution: Satire that's 'scarcely felt or seen'. That will give you the key to enjoying a very good film indeed. (NB The full quotation putting down Pope runs: "Satire should, like a polished razor keen, wound with a touch that's scarcely felt or seen. Thine is an oyster knife, that hacks and hews, the rage but not the talent to abuse.")
My personal opinion is that the acting in this film is brilliant and Evelyn Waugh would have been proud! It's true that the humour in the book has been toned down but everything else is there. And as for the acting - just witness Kristin Scott Thomas' amazing performance running the gammut of emotions all at once when she realises it isn't her lover but her son who has died. First there is fear, then relief, then guilt at her relief. Also James Wilby portraying a father dealing with grief yet trying to maintain the British stiff-upper lip. This is what real acting is about. Brilliant stuff. Now all we need is a decent DVD release. The German British import is a travesty with poor sound, the wrong aspect ratio, and a battered source print. Very sad.
The hammerblow of human cruelty dressed in the velvet glove of pre-war
hoch-Englishness. It's distressing that terrible things happen to the
pathetic yet likable protagonist Tony (James Wilby) - even more so that
they are delivered in the slow drip of self-interested scheming rather
than in galvanising dramatic confrontations.
Actually, Wilby is one of the two weak links of this film. He's not quite got the richness or range to suggest a redemptive development to his character. He's not sympathetic enough. The other might be Sturridge's peculiar, impressionistic direction that can fail to give the story enough propulsion.
What the film does have are a number of fine performances from a top-drawer supporting cast. One fears Alec Guiness may be a final-frame cameo, but his contribution is in fact at least as substantial as Brando's in Apocalypse Now. Kristin Scott Thomas is quite excellent, at once endearing and blindly self-interested. And I also liked very much Pip Torrens, a really sharp study of a new sort of British gent - modern and knowing, but no cad. 6/10
but well worth the time. The actors are perfection while the story is allowed to tell itself with crushing realism. This isn't a movie that is going to make you smile much but it will probably make you think.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Although Evelyn Waugh is one of my favourite writers, I cannot think of
any great films which have been based upon his works. Or, for that
matter, any great television series; I have never been a fan of that
monumentally tedious adaptation of "Brideshead Revisited" from the
early eighties. I think that the reason why Waugh does not adapt
particularly well to the screen has to do with the nature of his
writing; he was, in both politics and religion, an arch-conservative
who found himself at odds with the progressive spirit of his times and
attacked that spirit in a series of bleakly satirical novels. Like many
satirists he was not a writer who thought primarily in visual terms
(even though he was an art lover); I doubt if anyone reads him for the
beauty of his descriptive passages. He had a strong authorial voice for
which film-makers often have difficulty in finding an equivalent.
Perhaps the best attempt is Tony Richardson's version of "The Loved
One", which updated the story from the 1940s to the 1960s and expanded
Waugh's satire to take in various aspects of contemporary American
life. Although this film has a much more left-wing agenda than Waugh
would have been happy with, at least Richardson and his scriptwriters
never lose sight of the fact that they are adapting a work of satire.
Like the previous reviewer, however, I felt that the makers of "A Handful of Dust" ignored Waugh's irony and simply turned it into a tragedy made in the best "heritage cinema" style. It was directed by Charles Sturridge who was also responsible for that television "Brideshead". Waugh's novel, a tale of adultery among the upper classes, was intended as a satire on the mores of the British landed gentry and social-climbing bourgeoisie, and also on the eccentricities and hypocrisies of the English legal system, especially with regard to divorce. Waugh himself had gone though a divorce a few years earlier and, like his hero Tony Last, had been obliged by social convention to manufacture sham evidence which would allow his adulterous wife to pose as the wronged party. The title is an allusion to T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land":-
I will show you something different from either Your shadow at morning striding behind you Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; I will show you fear in a handful of dust,
and Waugh's satire has a bleakness which matches that of Eliot's lines.
Something else which makes "A Handful of Dust" a difficult novel to film is its weak structure. The strange ending, in which Tony is held prisoner in the Brazilian jungle by an elderly eccentric who forces him to read the complete works of Dickens over and over, is quite different in tone to the rest of the book and has the air of something tacked onto the novel from a separate work. Which indeed it is- it was originally a separate short story entitled "The Man Who Liked Dickens" and was pressed into service as an ending for the novel, presumably because Waugh could not think of anything more original. The film keeps this ending (although Waugh did in fact write an alternative one for his American publishers), and it cannot be said that it is any more successful on the screen than it is on the printed page.
In the novel Tony was a rather dull, pedestrian country squire, and part of Waugh's theme was that he was strapped for cash and finding it difficult to keep up his ramshackle, crumbling country house Hetton Abbey. His surname has obvious symbolic overtones with its implication that he is the "last of his line". (His only son is killed in a hunting accident). His glamorous younger wife is referred to as "Lady Brenda" whereas he is a plain "Mr.", suggesting that she comes from a socially more elevated family than he. In the film, however, we get little sense of his financial difficulties or of a family in decline. Tony as portrayed by James Wilby becomes a handsome, youthful aristocrat, living in a magnificent Victorian Gothic stately home- in reality Carlton Towers, the Yorkshire home of the Duke of Norfolk.
The film also stars a number of other luminaries of the British cinema, but few of them make any impression. Kristin Scott Thomas as Brenda and Rupert Graves as her lover John Beaver both have a thankless task; Waugh, still bitter over his own divorce, made both characters completely worthless. Graves has the added difficulty in that Beaver, although worthless, needs to be fascinating enough to be credible as the man who inspires an almost insane passion in a beautiful titled lady. Alec Guinness appears in a cameo as Tony's captor Mr. Todd; it is far from being his best performance, but at least it is not as embarrassing as his role as the Indian professor in "A Passage to India" from four years earlier.
Period pieces like this one were a frequent staple of the British film industry in the eighties and nineties, and this trend was the subject of some criticism as evidence of the British national obsession with nostalgia. I have never accepted the validity of this criticism; a number of these costume dramas, such as Merchant Ivory's "A Room with a View" and "Howards End", were excellent in quality and asked some pertinent questions about Britain's past. I have to admit, however, that at its worst "heritage cinema" could be beautiful but lifeless, and "A Handful of Dust", lacking the savage bite of Waugh's novel, falls into this category. Three years later Sturridge was to make an equally lifeless version of E.M. Forster's "Where Angels Fear to Tread". 5/10
A story that raises many questions, even good ones, but gives only a few answers. A great cast, James Wilby is for example excellent as Tony Last, goes to work in this beautifully filmed melodrama set in the early thirties i UK and Brazil. The period feeling is great and so are the settings. The story is built up around a doomed marriage, but it is hard to really understand why. There is a lot of smoke here but no real fire until the late and great Sir Alec Guiness comes to work in the last 30 minutes creating a frightening illiterate fan of Charles Dickens. But superb acting on all hands and high class camera-work is not enough although the film is worth watching especially if you have a love for British culture and history, and don't we all...
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
British television of the 1980's managed to produce scores of movies
and miniseries based on classic novels. Name a book by a British author
of the 19th or early 20th centuries, and you can bet there's an
adaptation for British TV. BBC, ITV, LWT, Granada, whichever. Most of
them are faithful, well-acted, full of authentic period details, and
don't have the same nettlesome commercial sensibilities of American TV.
A lot of them are very good: for example, the long series of Sherlock
Holmes stories starring Jeremy Brett.
One problem: they tended to crank these things out, with the same actors and directors, so that one period piece set at an English country manor featuring well-spoken actors in tailored tweeds looks and feels more or less like any other period piece set at an English country manor featuring well-spoken actors in tailored tweeds.
With Evelyn Waugh, that's a big problem. Waugh is a hilariously funny writer, even when he's writing about infidelity and death and the other terrible things that happen in "A Handful of Dust". So the film version, with Kristen Scott-Thomas, Alec Guiness, and Stephen Fry in a small role, follows the plot of the book, and uses much of the dialogue, but they've cut out most of the humor.
Take a scene from the book where Tony and Jock get very drunk and telephone Brenda (Tony's wife) and stagger around to her flat in the middle of the night. In the book this scene goes on for several pages -- they phone her, get lost, phone again, have a few more drinks, etc -- but in the movie it lasts all of two minutes. In another part of the book there's a parish priest who recycles his sermons from thirty years earlier, all of which were written while he served in the army in Afghanistan; the parishioners don't mind the references to deserts and jungles and tigers. That's not in the movie at all.
It's not a bad movie, just very disappointing if you've read the book. "Bright Young Things", Stephen Fry's more recent adaptation of Waugh's "Vile Bodies" was a much more accurate version of Waugh's black humor and satire. The humor is almost entirely missing from "Handful of Dust".
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