Shiny Shelf

Bright Young Things

By Mags L Halliday on 18 October 2003

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

‘Bright Young Things’ is an assault on the current ’sleb’-crazed media via the 1930s. Based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel ‘Vile Bodies’, the film has hacks and snappers chasing It Girls, famous sportsmen and society types through a coke-fuelled speed-addicted party scene. Plus ca change…

The parties are filmed as all-out assaults on the viewer, with loud music and spinning, giddying camera pans. Each one gets louder and less coherent until we see one blurring into a mass as a society correspondent commits both career and literal suicide after being ostracised from the scene. At the heart of the narrative are the shattering of each characters’ illusions: the columnist who kills himself; the writer who discovers his girlfriend is utterly mercenary and who ’sells’ her to his rival; the homosexual forced to flee the country for the continent after his sexuality is revealed; the It Girl who loses her mind in a champagne fuelled frenzy. And the group hallucination that their world is in a protected bubble, an illusion exploded with the announcement of war with Germany and the lights going out across Europe. It’s hard, when watching it, not to think of the Beckhams’ selling more newspapers than the invasion of Iraq. And yet…’Bright Young Things’ isn’t nearly savage enough. It raises a witty and caustic eyebrow and invites the viewer to tut-tut and say “yes, and it’s still so true today” rather than to engage any true anger with the shallow obsessions of both the rich and the press.

Some of this is doubtless due to the public persona of the director Stephen Fry (a man who also fled to the continent to escape media pressure). He always gives the image of someone who is a little prim, rather whimsical and from some bygone age, and it is this same image which blunts the attacking thrust of the film. The direction is very competent and assured – especially for a debut – but it is also very safe and reassuring. It is in the tradition of the upper class twit British film, rather than the gritty experimental realist British film, and as such leaves the viewer content rather than impressed.

As with almost any British costume drama, you have to praise the ensemble cast: all the usual suspects were there, from Jim Broadbent, Bill Paterson and Julia McKenzie doing caricatures, to John Mills and Peter O’Toole in cameos proving they’ve still alive. Fenella Woolgar particularly stood out as Lady Agatha, blithely going from an intimate customs search to a party at Number 10 to her childlike state in the mental hospital. She’s the kind of comedic actress who should be lauded for her timing and curious looks (like Joan Cusack – the funniest, and least appreciated, female actress in America). The two who least impressed were Emily Mortimer and Stephen Campbell Moore as the lovers. Were we supposed to empathise with them, or find them shallow? This is often the case with British films – the most conventionally beautiful of the cast are the least interesting characters.

‘Bright Young Things’ is a very assured debut film, and an entertaining one, but do expect to emerge feeling mildly in agreement with the theme instead of fully engaged.

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