Darlings, did you see Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees at Lord Pembury's party last night? Too squiffed on naughty salt, and those ghastly photo rats are sure to splash it all over the papers.
Sex. Scandal. Celebrity. Some things never change.
With this 2003 adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh satirical roman à clef Vile Bodies, multitalented Stephen Fry (Gosford Park, Peter's Friends) adds another title to his already impressive résumé: director. For his first directorial effort, Fry pulls out all the stops: In addition to its literary pedigree, his film boasts handsome period production values and an impressive cast that includes everyone from talented then-unknowns to stars of American cinema to esteemed British greats. It's an ambitious project for a first-time director—indeed, for any director, since satire is such a tricky genre. If the final product isn't consistently successful as satire, it is consistently entertaining.
Facts of the Case
In London between the World Wars, the pleasure-loving young aristocrats whom the press has scathingly dubbed "bright young things" are living it up. At an endless succession of decadent parties, privileged youths like flighty Nina (Emily Mortimer, Lovely and Amazing), flamboyant Miles (Michael Sheen, Underworld), and jaunty Agatha (Fenella Woolgar, Stage Beauty) dance, drink, and drug the nights away in an effort to stave off boredom. But not every member of their generation is living this heedless existence: Aspiring young writer Adam Fenwick-Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore, in his film debut) has just completed the novel that he hopes will launch his career and give him the financial security he needs in order to marry Nina. When the only copy of his manuscript is consigned to bureaucratic purdah, however, he finds himself in indentured servitude to publishing magnate Lord Monomark (Dan Aykroyd, Ghostbusters), who orders him to work off his debt by writing a gossip column about his friends.
Since the bright young things view the parasites of the press with contempt, this puts Adam in an equivocal position. Already, one of his friends, the impoverished young Lord Simon Balcairn (James McAvoy, Wimbledon), has become a social outcast because he earns his meager living by writing newspaper accounts of his peers' excesses. For a while, though, Adam seems to enjoy a streak of good luck: He successfully keeps his identity as Mr. Chatterbox a secret, and when he invests some gambling winnings with a drunken major (Jim Broadbent, Moulin Rouge!), he seems to be on his way to acquiring a tidy nest egg.
But in these uncertain times, Adam's luck is fragile—as is that of his seemingly charmed friends. When Nina begins to show a streak of practicality and looks to a wealthier suitor (David Tennant) as a means of securing her future, and when another war begins to loom, Adam and the bright young things soon find that the party is over.
There's an enjoyable sense of surreality to Bright Young Things. The farcically exaggerated elements combine with some simply bizarre twists to create the sense of a world in which anything might happen and usually does. The jaded partygoers who people the story seem to take all this in stride, which makes it funnier—but it also means that when their reality takes a darker turn, they're unequipped to handle it. This is a world in which not getting an invitation to a party can truly be a matter of life and death. Thus, while we are invited to condemn the bright young things for their shallow, sensation-seeking existence, we can't help but sympathize when they get their inevitable wake-up call—particularly since the young actors who play these reckless youths are so sympathetic.
Miles and Agatha are portrayed as being the most self-absorbed and oblivious of the popular crowd, yet both engage our liking and our sympathy. Miles doesn't seem to care about anything inside his current paramour's gorgeous head, but as a gay man in the 1930s we know he's in a precarious situation, and that mitigates our impatience with him. Michael Sheen's performance also segues effectively from foppish exaggeration to a touching wistfulness that pays off in a dramatic scene late in the film. Likewise, when Agatha inadvertently causes a huge political scandal that could have serious national implications, for her it's no more than an "oops" moment—yet there's something endearing about her embarrassment. Fenella Woolgar, in her first feature film role, makes Agatha a lot of fun, and for that we can forgive her much. James McAvoy has a smaller role than these two as Simon Balcairn, but he turns in an unforgettable performance that gives the film some of its most powerful moments. He brings to the surface all the emotion that the other characters are trying to hide or avoid, and he is remarkable.
In a subtly difficult role, Emily Mortimer as Nina takes what could easily have been just a flibbertigibbet and makes her both vulnerable and lovable. Nina is a particularly tricky character to portray because she almost never speaks her real feelings, and the actress has to show us what Nina is really thinking and feeling beneath her line of empty socialspeak. Mortimer succeeds beautifully in this regard. As our hero, Adam seems more grounded than those around him but also closer to desperation because of his poverty, and Stephen Campbell Moore gives him both pluck and idealism, while also convincingly shading in the disillusionment that Adam gains over the course of the story. It's not as showy as the other roles, and for that reason it's easier to overlook the considerable merits of Moore's performance, but he does an admirable job of anchoring an ambitious film—a tough job even for an experienced film actor, let alone a newcomer. As for the supporting ensemble, where does one begin? At the apex is Peter O'Toole (Lawrence of Arabia) as a mad old aristocrat, but we also get to see Jim Broadbent, who is, as always, perfection; Simon Callow (A Room with a View) as a political exile with a hilarious tale of woe; Stockard Channing (Six Degrees of Separation) as a brash American evangelist; Richard E. Grant (L.A. Story), who is sadly underused as a gimlet-eyed bishop; and many, many, many more.
The only difficulty with making his characters so likable is that Fry undercuts the satirical edge he seems to be working for. Thus, when these thoughtless characters eventually have to face the consequences of their frivolity, those consequences seem unduly harsh. There's not much indication here that they brought their own doom upon them. In his commentary, Fry indicates that he wanted these characters to be people that we didn't mind spending time with, and while I respect that desire to balance satire with sympathy, ultimately the balance seems weighted too much on the side of likability. I suspect that just a bit of tweaking could have resolved this problem, and if Fry had more clearly linked the political apathy of the bright young things to the advent of the war—a connection that emerged only in his commentary—that would also have made their individual fates seem less cruel and more appropriate.
Fry does excel at creating a gorgeous period atmosphere that doesn't feel like a museum exhibit. There's an authentic feeling of real people living their lives in his film, which can't always be said of period films. Fry's directorial choices also show a fine eye, particularly in his effective use of color: he uses computer-graded color to create dramatically tinted atmospheres in some scenes, and in others he chose source lighting to create a sense of intimacy and authenticity. The splendid production design by Michael Howells captures locations as diverse as a crumbling castle, Nina's chic Art Deco flat, Monomark's imposing office, and the cozy, late-Victorian interiors of Shepheard's Hotel. The screenplay, Fry's own adaptation of Waugh's novel, is every bit as witty as one would expect from Fry (who counts success as a novelist among his other achievements).
Audiovisual quality for this disc is excellent on the whole. A few scenes look a bit hazy, but this may be due to the extensive use of source lighting; color is uniformly excellent, even lush, and the picture is clean and flawless throughout. Both the audio options create an immersive surround field that makes evocative use of ambient noise—which includes everything from race cars to exploding bombs—and sound effects are admirably distinct. It doesn't seem that long ago that British films were dogged by muddy sound and muffled dialogue, but the dialogue here, like the rest of the audio, is rendered with great clarity and distinctness.
Bright Young Things is accompanied by several extra features, including a commentary by Fry. Since Fry approaches the commentary from the perspective of being a first-time director, it's understandable that it would be mainly a valentine to his cast and crew coupled with reminiscences about the shooting. Fry also talks about the source novel and occasionally offers some quite useful or illuminating morsels that cast light on the film, as when he discusses his motivations in shaping the characters. He also reveals influences on him as a director, which are sometimes surprising. Overall, it's an unremarkable track, but pleasant. More unusual is the 30-minute "From the Bottom Up" making-of featurette, which was made by the production's runner. From his perspective as he shuttles actors, costumes, and paperwork from place to place, we get an insider's view of the production, from the early days in which the cast was meeting with a voice coach, through the building of sets and fitting of costumes, to shooting. It's quite an education in the making of a film and captures, far more than the usual glossy promotional materials, the extent of the hard work and tedious paperwork that are necessary to the creation of a feature film. The only real down side is the uneven volume levels, which fluctuate wildly between different film sources. The representative of the standard glossy promotional materials, the 10-minute "Stephen Fry: Director" featurette, is more of a puff piece, featuring members of the cast talking on camera about how wonderful Fry is. (I don't dislike it on this account, since I always enjoy learning that people I admire are good eggs, but it does make for a less substantial extra.)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'm sorry to have to do this, but I see no way of avoiding it: I'm placing a moratorium on the use of Benny Goodman's classic "Sing Sing Sing" in films…for, oh, the next fifteen years or so. That should give us all time to recover from excessive familiarity and (for Americans, anyway) the image of animated chocolate chip cookies that accompanies this fatally overused composition. Its energy makes it ideal for use in film, as do its instant period associations, but enough is enough already.
In fact, because of its association with a specific time period, Fry creates instant confusion by starting his film out with this particular piece of music. In the opening scene, "Sing Sing Sing" makes us think of World War II; yet the women's fashions and hairstyles look like the mid- to late 1930s, while the cars our trendy characters arrive in look like the late 1920s. When we see a newspaper headline about half an hour into the story, it's dated 1931. When the hell are we? The answer is in Fry's commentary: we are essentially in a composite time that borrows elements of the 1920s as well as the 1930s—all the 1930s, I think—and then we are sped through (at least part of) World War II. It's quite disorienting and ends up seeming sloppy. Some viewers may end up fighting to get their bearings at the expense of being drawn into the story, and Fry could have prevented this by simply committing the action to a specific time period.
The sometimes abrupt shifts in tone are similarly disorienting. The way the sly but generally playful satire lurches into genuine tragedy seems to come out of nowhere, and some more bouncing around occurs before the film attains a smoother progression into a bittersweet realm. Not having read the source novel, I can't say whether these tonal jars are rooted in Waugh's book, but they do weaken the film's impact.
The bright young things and their war with the paparazzi bring up immediate associations with some of today's celebrities, and these parallels give the film a more immediate relevance than we see in many period pieces. (In fact, if Agatha had been portrayed as being more of a '30s-era Paris Hilton, I would have absolutely rejoiced to see her get her comeuppance; actually, I would have been rooting for something even harsher, like having a house fall on her.) Despite its somewhat softened satirical edge and uneven tone, though, Bright Young Things succeeds in being lively, funny, and at times quite moving. Fry's handling of a large cast, a lavish production, and the literary shadow of Evelyn Waugh is to be commended, and I look forward to seeing his next project as a director. Hint, hint.
I'll leave it to the older generation to condemn the bright young things. Not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Commentary by Director Stephen Fry
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