Vile Bodies, Ourselves

Nina (Emily Mortimer) and Adam (Stephen Campbell Moore) in Bright Young Things.Photo: Giles Keyte

Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies was published in 1930 and takes place, as he noted, “in the near future, when existing social tendencies have become more marked.” These tendencies include an appetite for the lurid scandals of the upper crust and a relish for seeing all those vile bodies brought low. Writer-director Stephen Fry’s adaptation, Bright Young Things, does a fairly good job re-creating the moneyed environs of thirties England in all its upholstered pomp, but it also prompts us to recognize this world as a precursor to our own bottom-feeding one. Only the names have changed.

Adam Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore), who has the generic look of a phlegmatic, slightly famished romantic, is returning by ferry to England from France when the action begins. A fellow passenger throws up on him—a not-so-subtle metaphor for what’s to come. Also soiled—and soon confiscated by a squeamish Customs officer—is the manuscript for Adam’s first novel, Bright Young Things, an exposé of his horrid generation that he hopes to sell to a scandal-mongering press baron, Lord Monomark (Dan Aykroyd), so that he can marry Nina (Emily Mortimer), a winsome socialite. He soon recovers, winning a £1,000 wager—but then he entrusts the money to a drunken major (Jim Broadbent) to bet on a horse; the major promptly disappears. In dire straits, Adam agrees to be the new gossip columnist—“Mr. Chatterbox”—for Lord Monomark’s rag. He spies on his friends, and when that proves unpalatable to him, he writes imaginary items about imaginary people.

“Jim Broadbent is marvelously rummy—a red-faced sot who tears up listening to Elgar.”

Fry’s sensibility is too frothy to capture Waugh’s gloriously desiccated comic tone. (Random sample: “They went up to Judge Skimp’s suite, but there had been a disaster there with a chandelier that one of his ladies had tried to swing on. They were bathing her forehead with champagne.”) The galas that Fry stages look too choreographed, and his actors overdo the romping and vamping. Nor does he quite convey the soft dread that descends upon the novel as it becomes clear to these revelers that the party is ending. Fry’s saving grace is his love of actors. The younger and less familiar performers are more than adequate, but it’s the older guard that shines. Broadbent is marvelously rummy—a red-faced sot who tears up listening to Elgar marches. His disappearing acts, evenly spaced throughout the film, are its comic high points. Peter O’Toole, in a too-brief appearance as Nina’s father, is a dotty wraith who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, or any other way. Stockard Channing, who should also be in the movie more, is the brittle American evangelist Mrs. Melrose Ape, who travels with pubescent girls outfitted in angels’ wings and preaches salvation to bored sinners. Dan Aykroyd has a blustery good time puffing himself up as a potentate. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that these performers, crammed into background cameos, should have been prominently featured in the foreground. Just because they’re all on actors’ holidays is no reason for such a short stay.

Michel Deville’s Almost Peaceful is set in Paris in 1946 in the Jewish tailors’ district and revolves around a ladies’-garment workshop staffed mostly by Holocaust survivors. Hope and the triumph of the human spirit get top billing, which, under the circumstances, seems a bit of a stretch. The film is nevertheless an eye-opener: I’m not aware of any other cinematic treatment of the plight of Jews in France immediately after the war. The film was adapted from a 1993 novel by Robert Bober, who drew on his own childhood experiences, and as it unwinds, one begins to appreciate Deville’s desire to see things work out well for these people. The scenes with the tailors have a familiar ease, and there are some marvelous revelations, like a sequence set in a summer camp for children whose parents never came back. (For sport, they knock down dummies of Goebbels and Pétain.) One of the tailors, Charles (Denis Podalydes), rents a room across from the apartment he once shared with his wife and daughter, still believing they will return from the camps. The characters in Almost Peaceful are pulled between a longing for what is lost and a fierce desire to live. Deville’s plangent sympathy for them keeps the sentimentality honest.

Vile Bodies, Ourselves