BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE EVELYN WAUGH COLLECTION

By • Feb 26th, 2010 •

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I quite literally stumbled upon the work of the British author Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) about twenty years ago, as I was leaving a friend’s apartment on Manhattan’s upper Westside. In his building, tenants put stuff that they-don’t-want-anymore-but-somebody-else-might-be-able-to-use-it underneath a wall-mounted mirror in the lobby (and it’s still the drop point, all these years later). At any rate, someone was parting with an almost complete set of the works of Evelyn Waugh. Being poor and short on reading material, I took as many of them as I could carry.

Of course, I’d heard of Evelyn Waugh–the first TV version of Brideshead Revisited had been produced to much acclaim–but I thought he was some stodgy and sentimental champion of the Dying British Empire, and up until then I’d stayed away from what I thought would be a dreary read. But for lack of anything better to do, I started devouring his work–and found that he was quite the opposite. What a marvelous storyteller the man was! His hero is often a proper British gentleman; but because of–ignorance? conscience?–he has a certain obliviousness. He is quite certain he understands the world and his place in it. Then time and civilization roll forward inexorably, and the hapless protagonist is steamrollered by circumstance. The character (and the reader) is stripped of his certainty as the course of the story is altered by absurd catastrophe. Waugh’s books really are genre-defying–partially tragic, largely satiric, with the kind of hairpin twists one expects from Saki or O’Henry.

I could go on about my favorite Waugh books. Fortunately for myself, and for the readers of this review, neither Scoop nor A Handful of Dust were my most memorable reads. I had pretty much forgotten the stories and characters by the time I encountered this collection, and was therefore open to being surprised and delighted anew. I am happy to say that these films do a great job of emulating the author’s approach to story telling. In the course of watching A Handful of Dust, my idea of what style of film I was viewing changed at least four times–and I was glad to be goosed. I will say as little about these films as I possibly can, because a lot of the fun of the first viewing is in not knowing where one is going.

Set in 1930s, with locales in London, the British countryside, and the South American jungle, A Handful of Dust tells the story of Brenda (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Tony (James Wilby) Last, a wealthy young couple who reside at Hetton, a huge old money pit of a country estate. When Brenda gets bored with rural life and takes on young striver John Beaver (Rupert Graves) as a lover, the story becomes a bleak dissection of a failing marriage. But then a terrible tragedy ensues (the victim has been set up by the filmmakers from the beginning), and one thinks that the film is going to wallow in the melodrama of stiff-upper-lips coping with emotional trauma–until it goes somewhere else entirely; different genre, different continent. I don’t want to reveal anything else about the plot, but I will say that the performances are consistently nuanced and human, in spite of the absurd places to which this yarn takes the characters. Judi Dench is wonderful as Mrs. Beaver, a middle aged harridan genteelly clawing her way up the social ladder, while an elderly Alec Guinness is grand as a seemingly guileless–but very dangerous–eccentric.

The music, by George Fenton, supports the genre-bending aspect of the film, by turns sentimental, comic, and eerie. The period design of costumes (Oscar nominated) and locations is also wonderful; unfortunately, the quality of the film itself is not that great–the colors seem a little muddied and the film looks grainy.

Scoop is more obviously comedic, right from the beginning. In a case of mistaken identity, the naïve young Boot (Michael Maloney), who writes a country garden column for the London paper The Daily Beast, is sent off to Africa to be a war correspondent. The tiny country of Ishmaelia is having a civil war, and although no one in Great Britain is exactly sure who is fighting or why, the Beast’s owner Lord Copper (Donald Pleasance) explains to Boot: “It’s the patriots against the traitors. . . .Remember the patriots are in the right, and they’re going to win. The Daily Beast is behind them, foursquare. But they must win quickly. The British pubic has no time for a war which lingers on indecisively.”

In Africa, Boot encounters no combat but a passel of gangster politicians, opportunistic entrepreneurs, grifters, madmen, and a disaffected and drunken press core, more interested in creating a sensation than in telling the truth.

Again the performances are pitched perfectly for the bizarre world in which the characters live. Although the style is heightened, the actors’ reactions always seem logical given the surrounding strangeness. And all the locations in this story are peculiar–from the town of Laku to which the journalists race on an anonymous tip (it turns out Laku means “I don’t know” in Ishmalean and the journalists end up marooned in a desert wasteland) to Lord Copper’s monolithic offices. However, the least realistic environment has to be the ancestral home of Boot. There, all the ancestors appear to be alive–albeit just barely. The clock ticks ominously in the background in this decaying palace, as the inhabitants react at the pace of petrification.

Wonderful work by Michael Maloney as the untried, but not stupid, Boot, by Denholm Elliott as Mr. Salter, Boot’s bewildered editor, by Burt Ceasar, as a well-mannered, British-educated, and power-crazed African thug, and by Renee Soutendjik, as Kätchen, the cunning German siren who breaks Boot’s heart.

Again the production and aural designs are beautiful, although the film quality leaves something to be desired. In spite of that, these films are well worth watching, and layered enough to hold up for multiple viewings.

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