Friday, August 20, 2004

Fry on Waugh -- Vile Bodies morph into Bright Young Things

Oh, goodie! Stephen Fry does Evelyn Waugh -- two great favorites with a good deal in common. I was certainly leery that it would be too much of a good thing when I heard "Vile Bodies" was being produced. But Stephanie Zacharek from Salon gives "Bright Young Things" a review that shows she brought a devotion to the comic Waugh along with her to the screening. And she gives Fry's "deliciously dazzling" adaptation high marks in spite of her strong Waugh attachment (with, naturally, a couple of reservations).

Fry realizes that the actors are the party in "Bright Young Things," and he's cast them perfectly. Adam may be the hardest type of character to play -- he has to be something of a likable drip -- but Moore pulls it off beautifully: He understands that his character needs to be a stylized cartoon sketch, but one with feelings. And Mortimer, with her society-girl profile and tousle of dark curls, gives Nina just the right measure of blasé fervidity. Mortimer also has one of the most seductive voices of any actress working today -- it's a throaty rasp that's saucily erotic, like a perfumey cloud of smoke filtered through a pastel Bakelite cigarette holder.

The detractions for the Waugh purist are, apparently, Fry having a bit heavy a hand with some of the "moral of the story" aspects that Waugh leaves to the reader to draw. Though that's not to suggest there's any misconstruing of Waugh's messages, given the truly dreadful behavior of many of the "vile bodies" he chronicles. Yet Waugh walks the tight-rope between being cruel to his creations (as they mostly deserve) and making you take a fancy to them somehow or other. Zacharek gives one of the nicest summaries of the little magic that makes Waugh's best comedies work, and keep us coming back to them over the decades.

Everything the characters do is light and tossed off and often morally deplorable: They don't have epiphanies, only parties. As shallow and sometimes unlikable as they are, though, we find ourselves wanting to be around them right through to the end of the book. That's the ultimate test of their social magnetism: We're real, they're fictional, and still, we'd like to hang around them, if only they'd have us. How twisted is that?

That's a slender tight-rope for a film maker to walk as Zacharek points out several places where Fry faces some difficulties, especially telling the story for a modern audience. Zacharek also complains that Fry:

loses control of the movie's ending: It's too buttoned-up, and too conventionally happy, to suit the wily dryness of Waugh's characters. But still, you walk away from "Bright Young Things" believing that, by and large, Fry has gotten Waugh as well as any filmmaker could be expected to.

But these complaints appear minor to Zacharek for any but the most niggly of critics. Two factors appear to be key from the review's perspective.

First, no confusion with "Brideshead"-type production values. She observes:

Significantly, he hasn't brushed "Vile Bodies" with that gloopy, dishearteningly tasteful "Masterpiece Theatre" glaze; in its best moments, "Bright Young Things" is as lithe and as wicked as its source material.

And ultimately, character is the main ingredient Zacharak prizes in this adaptation. Though she sings the praises of the ensemble, what makes the movie sound irresistable is this sketch of "Agatha," who is not one of the players on the marquee.

Bthe movie's most fabulous character is Agatha Runcible, played by a superb actress with the deliciously Waughian name of Fenella Woolgar. Agatha is a game society gal who, post-costume party, flounces into the prime minister's study dressed as an exotic dancing girl -- "How shy-making!" she remarks -- and later appears at a motor race clad in trousers and a necktie. Woolgar has one of those captivating, longish faces that actually benefits from not being particularly pretty -- she's all about animation and expression. As Agatha, with her blond bob and googly eyes, she's like a Katzenjammer Modigliani -- a creature whose biggest mystery is her ability to maintain, with barely a pause for breath, a sense of giggly delight.

If that doesn't pique your interest or tickle your fancy, then I'm afraid there's little hope.

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