Judge Diane Wild ordered buttermilk and French toast, not a milquetoast stuck in Dutch Guiana.
"No one likes you except me."—Lady Brenda, to John Beaver
From a novel by Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust seems at first to be a subtle examination of the breakdown of an upper-crust English marriage circa 1930. It then turns into part revenge flick, part wacky jungle adventure. Throughout the 1988 film, odd characters pop up and disappear without leaving much of a trace. Even without reading the book, it's obvious that the whole story didn't make it onscreen.
Facts of the Case
Lady Brenda Last (Kristin Scott Thomas, Gosford Park) is bored. Bored, bored, bored. What is a sophisticated woman of the 1930s to do, stuck in a vast country estate with a mild-mannered husband who can rarely be persuaded to venture into London, and a young son who is a miniature version of his father?
Then hubbie Sir Tony (James Wilby, Maurice) invites his acquaintance John Beaver (Rupert Graves, both Gosford Park and Maurice), an impoverished and shallow young man, for a visit. Brenda finally finds the passion in her life with this oddly dispassionate young man. She rents a flat in London from Mr. Beaver's mother (Judi Dench, Iris) and enjoys a dual life with Beaver, financed by dear Tony. But when their son tragically dies and their marriage disintegrates, Brenda finds that Tony's good nature goes only so far. Initially prepared to grant her a divorce, Tony is finally repelled by her greed and takes off to the jungles of South America, where at least the savages are easily identifiable. Or are they?
After losing his traveling companion and succumbing to a tropical illness, Tony is saved by Mr. Todd (Alec Guinness, Lawrence of Arabia), an illiterate, half-British, half-Peewee man who longs to have someone read to him. Unfortunately, Tony has a lovely reading voice, and the old man isn't eager to let him go.
Tony is a very likeable (if clueless) fellow, while Brenda is thoughtless and cruel, but somehow not always unlikable. Scott Thomas gives Brenda warmth and luminosity that, while it doesn't make up for some of the horrible things she does and says, helps us understand why Tony trusts her (even as she spends more and more time away from him). But her reaction to her son's death, which becomes her catalyst to attempt to divorce Tony and marry Beaver, destroys any sympathy we might have for her. She and Beaver live in a moral wasteland, where actions are removed from their consequences and tradition has made way for selfishness.
Tony, on the other hand, clings to traditions, like the family estate he can no longer comfortably afford, as if they were values. Though an innocent party, he is not a hero here. He is such a milquetoast (he would say gentleman) that he and his lawyer concoct a plot to have him caught in bed with another woman, so that Brenda can sue him for divorce and be eligible for alimony. He finally grows a spine when her demands would mean selling his beloved estate, and that's when the movie gets "interesting" (as opposed to plain, old, un-quotation-marked interesting).
From that point on, a different movie seemed to have taken over my DVD player—one of those cheesy, purposely ridiculous adventure films. Tony follows a recently met explorer to Brazil (or perhaps Dutch Guiana…the explorer isn't quite sure). They meet the Wakuchi and Peewee tribes, whose names and portrayals are straight out of an old-time children's book. It's hard to reconcile this part of the movie with the first part. Maybe the England scenes needed more dark humor, maybe the South American scenes needed less, but the dramatic shift in tone left me more bemused than amused. Tony's adventures are intercut with scenes of Brenda's increasing desperation as she is left with no money and a disinterested lover.
This is a bare-bones DVD release from Warner Brothers: no extras, no captions, no stereo sound, and the image shows a lot of grain, fuzziness, and scratches. I would protest, but the movie isn't likely to capture a broad enough audience for the effort to be justified. The cinematography is gorgeous, however, showcasing the lush locations in England and Venezuela.
This is a peculiar movie, and not a particularly good one, but it is mildly entertaining if only for the delayed-onset "huh?" factor, and for the cast of greats (Guinness, Dench) and goods (Scott Thomas, Graves, Wilby). Evelyn Waugh fans be warned: this is Waugh Lite. Everyone else be warned: A Handful of Dust is not everyone's cup of tea.
Guilty, though possibly a small guilty pleasure for a small select few.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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