Produced by Gina Carter and Miranda Davis.
Starring Stephen Campbell Moore, Emily Mortimer, Michael Sheen, James McAvoy, Fenella Woolgar, Stockard Channing, Dan Ackroyd, David Tennant, Jim Broadbent, Peter O’Toole, Harriet Walter, John Mills, Simon Callow.
The brittle, glitzy world of Bright Young Things hurtles with careless excess and whirlwind speed through the alcohol- and cocaine-laced private salons, nightclubs and glamorous parties of London between World Wars. Stephen Fry in his debut as director catches brilliantly the satirical tone of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies. Irrepressible and light as froth, the Bright Young Things of the title are a social set where any degree of seriousness is an utter bore and frivolous fun is the sole indicator of a thing worth doing. In this world the moribund older inhabitants are identified with the old guard of unattractively staid values, while the young twenty-somethings behave with a decadent callousness only the determinedly shallow can muster. Of course, it’s satire as social commentary with a moral bite, and sooner or later most of the characters are given the devastating comeuppance their lemming-like oblivious antics engender as a natural consequence. Others, more sincere or naïve, suffer various capricious cruelties of fate and somehow it is all congruous with a world of values gone mad.
Earnest young writer Adam Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore, in an impressive feature film debut) returns from France with the manuscript of an exposé novel he has written on the outrageous antics of the Bright Young Things, which he has promised to media baron Lord Monomark (Dan Ackroyd). When an officious customs clerk at Dover (Jim Carter) confiscates the manuscript as ‘filth’, Adam is more than a trifle miffed. The consequences will be dire – he has already received an advance on the book from Lord Monomark, and equally unfortunately, his hopes of marrying the luscious Nina (Emily Mortimer) seem utterly dashed.
The fortunes of all the Bright Young Things in this world wax and wane alarmingly and Waugh and Fry treat their characters with the kind of ruthlessness their empty lives seem to warrant. Though the young people in Adam’s set all party together continuously, their communication is aloof and blasé, full of cutting wit and snide put-downs, designed to bolster their fragile sense of being the in-crowd. ‘I’d kill for a martini!’ declares Nina to Miles (Michael Sheen) in a nightclub where everyone seems frantically and shriekingly determined to have a good time. ‘Isn’t this too dull? I’ve never been more bored in my life!’ Sparkling insincerity is de rigueur, and exaggeration and false bonhomie the means by which these twittering party animals chase their goal of jollity. Adam, who because of his sincerity and greater depth, is the only one whose fate we are allowed to care about, functions more as an observer and we see his world through his eyes.
When a friend of Adam’s, Simon Balcairn (James McAvoy), writing a gossip column under the name of Mr Chatterbox, falls foul of the occupational hazard of gossip columnists – that of making his tattle-tale presence no longer welcome at social events – he pre-empts his sacking with an outrageously libellous set of lies before putting his head in the oven. Adam is the doubtful beneficiary of this deed when Lord Monomark, calling on Adam’s debt to him, makes him the new Mr Chatterbox. Adam and Nina decide that to avoid a similar too-shamemaking fate, the subjects of his column will all be imaginary. Like many actions taken by the characters in this story designed to avoid unpleasant outcomes, the results are worse, although along the way they have a great deal of fun in describing bogus latest fashions such as the green top hat, soon dutifully seen in the best society.
The film careers around the antics of the featherlight Agatha Runcible (Fenella Woolgar), Miles, the cocaine-addicted and outrageously camp son of Lady Metroland (Harriet Walter), Ginger Littlejohn (David Tennant), the rich rival for Nina’s hand and the elusive and hilarious Drunken Major, played masterfully by Jim Broadbent. Adam’s determined attempts to get back the money he entrusted to the Drunken Major, who may or may not be a con-man, are a recurring comic thread through the better and worse points of their lives.
Some of the wittiest conversation is between Nina and Adam, as the vicissitudes of his finances dictate whether or not they will marry. When Nina insouciantly tells him she is marrying Ginger because he has money while Adam is dead broke, she characteristically affects not to care at all. Adam, however, is utterly heartbroken, and resorts to the self-loathing act of ‘selling’ Nina to Ginger for the price of his hotel bill. Then he goes off to war.
Scenes that stick brilliantly in the memory, and the many cameos by a pantheon of senior actors include Peter O’Toole as Nina’s father, the dotty Colonel Blount, who agreeably bestows large cheques on Adam signed ‘Charlie Chaplin’. Sir John Mills, 95 at the time of filming, plays an elderly society member at one of Lady Metroland’s parties where he demands snuff from Miles’ compact. The ‘snuff’ is cocaine, and the very brief scene is priceless. Dan Ackroyd and Stockard Channing enthusiastically epitomise different extremes of the Canadian and American characters, juxtaposed against the British establishment, while Julia McKenzie plays Lottie Crump, owner of the decadent hotel in which Adam lives, with chuckling indulgence. Any scene with Fenella Woolgar as the daffy-brained Agatha is eminently watchable and her final scenes, like many of the characters’ arcs, would be devastatingly sad were it not for the deftness of the irony. Emily Mortimer is superb as the China-doll-like, inch-deep, security-driven Nina.
In an interesting extension of the novel Fry includes the war, which entails a slightly jarring change in Nina and Adam. While the ending beautifully ties up the main plotline in a final carefree reversal of fortunes, there’s just a hint at this point of laboured contrivance as Adam gains his heart’s desire. Nevertheless, an overall impression of scintillating brilliance makes Bright Young things a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Avril Carruthers 3rd January 2004
What do you think of Bright Young Things
Share your opinions on our forum