Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Bright Young Things



UK (UK/US) 2003 : Stephen FRY : 105 mins

Bright Young Things? Dim old Fry, more like. Adapting Evelyn Waughs 1930 novel Vile Bodies, the esteemed and erudite comic actor famously once described as having a brain the size of a planet for some reason to updated the action from the late 20s to the late 30s. Such a decade-shift isn’t that unusual in current cinema, even from first-time directors Roger Avarys The Rules of Attraction transferred Bret Easton Elliss eighties novel to the present, and just about got away with it. Fry isn’t so fortunate, mainly because his shift throws his whole screenplay out of kilter and its a heavy-handed attempt to add unwarranted depth by having Waughs non-stop party suddenly halted by the rise of Nazi Germany.

And audiences will, for much of the films length, be forgiven for failing to spot Frys fatal shift: there’s a fleeting reference to (German foreign-minister) Von Ribbentrop, but otherwise everything and everyone looks and feels so very 1920s that it comes as a real jolt when someone turns on the radio just as the Prime Minister is making his epochal we are now at war with Germany speech. The later stretches include sombre sequences set in wartime rural France, and in London during the Blitz all of which are in very stark contrast to the delirious, gleaming whirl of the opening hour.

This is the section that works by far the best, as Fry takes equal parts Gosford Park (which he was in), Moulin Rouge, Party Monster and Absolutely Fabulous and proceeds to shake, shake, shake. The resulting froth, while admittedly insubstantial, is sufficiently intoxicating to mask the plots shameless wispiness. Aspiring author Adam (Stephen Campbell Moore) returns from the continent with the manuscript of his novel to be entitled Bright Young Things. He has an agreement with publishing magnate Lord Monomark (Dan Aykroyd) which will provide sufficient financial footing for him to marry his sweetheart Nina (Emily Mortimer) both are from aristocratic families that have fallen on hard times. But when a censorious customs official (Jim Carter) impounds the manuscript as potentially obscene, the wedding is suddenly off and as Adams finances precariously see-saw, so do the chances of his taking Nina up the aisle. Meanwhile, Ninas financially-secure old flame Ginger (Stephen Tennant) is waiting in the wings

The Adam-Nina story provides Bright Young Things with what flimsy spine it has, but its really an entre into the dazzling upper-class demi-monde of a London no less swinging than the sixties. Fry (and casting-director Wendy Brazington) fill out the movie with a dazzling array of character/caricature turns from familiar faces like Jim Broadbent, Simon Callow, Stockard Channing, Richard E Grant, Julia McKenzie and Peter OToole. But the less-established Moore, Tennant, Michael Sheen (as deliciously waspish Miles), and Fenella Woolgar (as horse-faced dizzy-toff Agatha) make just as much of an impression in what amounts to a succession of silly but enjoyable vignettes of upper-class decadence painted by cinematographer Henry Braham in suitably alluring, glowing, coruscating technicolour.

Until, that is, Fry feels the need for things to turn abruptly serious and the wheels suddenly fall off the wagon in a jarringly brief spell, the more colourful characters are shunted off into exile (Miles) and madness (Agatha), and our hero Adam goes off to war. These are largely unconvincing developments that smack heavily of scriptwriting contrivance especially with regards to Agatha, who almost overnight goes from amusing airhead to off-her-rocker asylum inmate. As the energy level suddenly dips, Fry increasingly falls back onto clich and sentimentality after creating these glittering, chattering, fatuous dolls for our delight and mockery, he suddenly expects us to feel for them as, one by one, their lives are overtaken by various forms of tragedy. As the folk of Vile Bodies might put it, Fry at this point really does become the most crashing, frightful bore.

December, 2003
(seen 1st December : Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle-upon-Tyne)

by Neil Young