Last night, we finally watch Stephen Fry's film version Of Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, Bright Young Things. I spend most of the film thinking that Emily Mortimer must be the finest and most versatile actress of her generation - she looks *nothing* at *all* like she did when playing Myra Hindley in Longford. Then I realise I'm confusing Emily Mortimer with Samantha Morton and that slightly takes the sheen off things.
I haven't read the novel - can't even remember which two early Waugh novels I *have* read, so can't really comment on it as adaptation, but it's certainly not a bad film. The comedy in the writing is, understandably, consistently teased out by Fry's direction and the excellent cast, who all *look* just right for the period. Michael Sheen, getting a well-deserved break from playing Tony Blair (one wonders what awful things *he* got up to in former lives) minces to particularly good effect, and Julia McKenzie, not normally my cup of char, is exceptional as the dotty landlady, Lottie Crump. The denouement - Adam at last hooking up with the mad Colonel (now a mad General) on the battlefields of WWII who finally possesses him of the £34,005 he's won on the gee-gees and that will; enable him to 'buy' back his share in his beloved, Nina (Mortimer/Morton) - is the only moment when the general ambience of what-hoing and high larks gives way a little to deeper feelings. But the spirit of decadence, if not quite the degree of nihilism I'd expected, is captured well and it's a refreshing reminder to people of my generation that the 60s was not the only Dionysian decade of the last century.
My expectations had been raised by a couple of lectures -one on the novel, the other on the effects of WWI on the psyches of those who survived it - that I recalled from my degree course. The English lecture quoted a scathing passage from the text in which Waugh is evidently directing his ire at those of his generation who, shellshocked by the horrors of The Great War, had thrown themselves into the pursuit of the hedonistic pleasures of the Jazz Age with such abandon, and it changed my perceptions of Waugh as a writer - I'd only picked up on the Wodehousian comic bits before, and not the social critique. The horrors of attritional trench warfare - millions turned into cannon-fodder to advance a few feet - cast their shadow on British Foreign policy right up to Chamberlain's declaration of a second war with Germany. Until a few months before, Appeasement was pretty much bipartite, the argument for rearmament (and possible use of those armaments) was about as easy to make then as it would be for a prospective government to stand on a ticket of negative equity and 15% interest rates...
Little of which is foregrounded in the film and, to get to the nubbin of what I really wanted to say here, the sense of dislocation and warped depravity I imagine haunting the npost WW1 years is perhaps caught better in the Bowie song Aladdin Sane, which was inspired by his reading Vile Bodies and making the connection between Waugh's and his own period. Mike "Greer" Garson's manic, Ellington-meets-what-Hendrix-would've-sounded-like-if-he'd-played-the-piano solo, is particularly powerful. I must read the Waugh book now, if only to see if the same heady mix of elegy, numbness and impending dread is evoked as beautifully there as it is in that song.
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