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Friday, September 10, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Moira Macdonald
Coming just a scant 10 days after "Vanity Fair," Stephen Fry's entertaining "Bright Young Things" seems to have provided employment for that tiny handful of top-drawer British actors who weren't cast in the first film. (Both films, however, have the very good sense to employ Jim Broadbent, impeccable here as a character known as The Drunken Major.) Based on the novel "Vile Bodies" by Evelyn Waugh, Fry's film is so crowded with faces, both familiar and fresh, that it sometimes feels more like a collection of scenes than a movie. But the often-dizzying mayhem he depicts feels true to the mood of the book, even if its occasional scenes of romance though charming do not.
Waugh's novel, written in the late '20s but set in an imagined '30s, is as brittle and delicious as an ice chip. His characters, primarily a group of young Londoners chasing each other around the party circuit, speak in flip, chic little sentences that sparkle on the page, unaccompanied by adjectives or really any indication of what these people are actually feeling. It's up to Fry (who adapted the novel as well as directed) and to the actors to fill in those blanks and they do, to overflowing.
At the center of the film's whirl is Adam (Stephen Campbell Moore), a young writer desperate to sell his book so he can marry Nina (Emily Mortimer), a merry socialite who keeps her heart guarded, most of the time. When Adam calls to tell her he can't marry her because he has no money, she keeps her voice light, saying only "Adam, you are a bit of a bore." Hanging up the phone, Mortimer plays the moment perfectly: she blinks, looks around quickly as if lost, softens her expression (will she cry?) and then tightens it up again the party girl, soldiering on.
As the drumbeats of wild music (the film begins, irresistibly, with a montage of red-tinged party scenes set to Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing") begin to change to those of war, the fortunes of Adam and his friends change as well. None is sadder than Agatha (wonderful Fenella Woolgar), the most reckless and eccentric of the party set she's got an always-game smile that never fades, until it becomes tragic. "Let's have a party," she says from her bed at an institution, in a brave but now tiny voice. "There's a gramophone under my bed."
"Bright Young Things" is so full of riches, the movie occasionally gets lost in the details, as a parade of fine cameos marches by: Richard E. Grant, Simon Callow, Stockard Channing, Harriet Walter, Imelda Staunton, Sir John Mills and Peter O'Toole (as Nina's slightly mad father). But Fry, in his directing debut, shows an eye for style, a fine literary intelligence and an unmistakable heart.
Late in the film, a recording of "The Party's Over" plays on a gramophone, while a flickering candle stuck to the record's center rotates wildly. Waugh ended things on a battlefield; Fry in a warmly lit room, furnished with love and hope. The novelist might harrumph, but audiences may well sigh with pleasure. The party's over, but life goes on.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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