Turning literature into cinema is a sticky business. A film-maker who takes too many liberties with a cherished novel is branded a philistine. Yet if the movie mirrors the book too closely, the director’s imagination is suspect. Director Charles Sturridge and producer Derek Granger—the British team who created the acclaimed 1982 television series Brideshead Revisited—have attempted a staunchly faithful rendering of another Evelyn Waugh work, his 1934 novel A Handful of Dust. Entire passages of dialogue reach the screen intact from the printed page; the characters are vividly reproduced; and the images unfold with a subtlety that mimics the quiet subterfuge of Waugh’s prose.
But an elusive spice from the author’s original recipe seems to be missing. And the result is a very odd movie—an acerbic but unfunny comedy of manners that is as bewildering as it is enchanting. The novel is considered Waugh’s most autobiographical work. In 1929, the author was shocked when his beautiful and witty first wife suddenly left him for another man. He dealt with the humiliation by engaging in a frenetic bout of travel that took him from South America to Morocco. There, he wrote A Handful of Dust, which chronicles the silent collapse of a marriage within the repressed
confines of English high society.
Tony Last (James Wilby) is naively happy in his marriage to Brenda (Kristin Scott Thomas). With one spoiled son and a staff of white-gloved servants, they live a pleasantly cloistered life in a huge Victorian Gothic mansion on a country estate. Brenda, however, is bored. While her husband remains blithely oblivious, she drifts into an affair with the handsome but vapid John Beaver (Rupert Graves). A young scavenger, Beaver has no income and lives in London with his scheming mother—“Mumsy,” as he calls her. With Tony’s permission, Brenda rents her own flat in the city, explaining to her ever-gullible husband that she is studying economics at London University. Tony is the last to learn of his wife’s infidelity, after a tragic event shatters their veneer of comfort and security. Like Waugh, Tony seeks escape in travel: he follows an eccentric explorer to the jungles of South America.
The British upper class of the 1930s, a world of plummy accents and camouflaged desires, is an exotic jungle in its own right. The movie presents a vision of a society so refined that its members seem incapable of communicating. The men are portrayed as mollycoddled dimwits who sip brandy and ginger in the soft-leather womb of their club. They dote on women who ultimately are all versions of Mumsy— slyly affectionate women whose fondness masks contempt. Emotions are
strictly taboo. As Brenda tells her husband: “You’re not to brood, Tony. You know that’s one of the things that’s not allowed.”
Despite Brenda’s cavalier disregard for Tony’s feelings, she is the film’s most sympathetic character. Thomas conveys Brenda’s chimerical beauty and deceitful charm with a stunning performance. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. Anjelica Huston cuts a swath through English hypocrisy in a delightful cameo as a visiting American aviatrix. And Sir Alec Guiness lends his laconic style to the role of Mr. Todd—a half-caste version of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—who shows Tony the true horror of civilization in the South American jungle.
Filmed in England and Venezuela, Dust is full of exquisite images. But the serious beauty of the film tends to undermine the intent of the story. Scenes slide into each other with a graceful elision that confuses the audience at key points in the narrative. And although the film re-creates characters and scenes in reverent detail, its lyricism muffles the ironies of the novel. The astringent wit of Waugh’s dark vision seems absent from the movie. Despite the best of ingredients, Dust does not add up. Amid the high-calorie confections of summer movie fare, it offers a taste of literary intelligence. But it is as disappointing as a mediocre meal in a fine restaurant.
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