Vile With a Smile

Stephen Fry masterfully transcribes the wit of Waugh to the big screen.

Bright Young Things
Dizzy celebrity infatuation, viewed through the lens of the '30s.
Dizzy celebrity infatuation, viewed through the lens of the '30s.
Essayist. Playwright. Radio personality. Librettist. Actor. Novelist. Now, with Bright Young Things, the inimitable British wit Stephen Fry debuts as feature screenwriter and director. Best known here in the colonies either as Jeeves (opposite Hugh Laurie) in Jeeves and Wooster, or as Peter in Peter's Friends, or possibly as Oscar Wilde in Wilde, Fry establishes himself as an inspired, world-class talent behind the camera and delivers my favorite film of the year thus far.

A fairly faithful adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's trenchant novel Vile Bodies, Fry's film launches us headlong into England between the wars. Our giddy hosts are the eponymous "bright young things," the glammy, restless, 24-hour party people of 1930s England, busily getting bombed before busily getting bombed. No quantity of kicks can satisfy this lot, most of whom don't even realize that they're living in oblivion.

Our central heroes are Adam Fenwick-Symes and Nina Blount, played by gifted stage actor Stephen Campbell Moore (who should soon give Jude Law a run for his money) and seasoned indie-girl Emily Mortimer (Young Adam). Their on-again, off-again romance drives the film. Were this but a romantic comedy, it would be cute and quaint, and we'd move on to the next one, but Fry affectionately and sometimes quite aggressively plumbs Waugh's sly appraisal of the fractious supporting characters, who should prove familiar to contemporary audiences, regardless of their snazzy period costumes by the talented Nic Ede. It's an age of assorted dandies, bints, and louts -- tarted up, liquored up, even coked up -- with gossip mills tracking their every misstep. Again, echoes of today's tabloids.

The frazzled young Lord Simon Balcairn (James McAvoy) leads us through this labyrinth, to a point anyway, as "Mr. Chatterbox," a gossip columnist working for mad newspaper mogul and transplanted Canadian Lord Monomark (Dan Aykroyd, who clearly relishes upstaging everyone through his character's disturbing monomania).

Monomark forms a sort of bridge between the elder, "respectable" crowd and Adam, Nina, and their cohorts (including Michael Sheen and David Tennant, both fab). Nina's father, Colonel Blount, is played by Peter O'Toole (game and gamy); religious huckster, Mrs. Melrose Ape, by Stockard Channing (hilarious); the awkward Father Rothschild by Richard E. Grant (superstar); and Jim Broadbent is the Drunken Major. Give it up also to Julia McKenzie as Adam's temporary hostess, Lottie Crump, and newcomer Fenella Woolgar as Agatha Runcible, queen of partying and its pathetic flip-side. The mix is irresistible.

It's quite a pleasure to announce Bright Young Things as the finest Waugh adaptation since The Loved One. The film should play well to general audiences. Fry not only holds up a mirror to our own dizzy, celebrity-infatuated age -- he taps several cracks into it first, for heightened accuracy.

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