Bright Young Things

Until somebody loses an eye
Stephen Fry
Stephen Campbell Moore, Emily Mortimer, Fenella Woolgar, David Tennant
The Setup: 
The lives of the rich, young and irresponsible between the two world wars.

My recent watching of Doctor Who and growing obsession with David Tennant made me look up what he had been in before, leading me directly to this film, which I had seen and quite liked when it was out. This is written and directed by actor/comedian Stephen Fry, best known [to me, at least] for brilliantly playing the lead character in Oscar Wilde biopic Wilde, and is adapted from early Evelyn Waugh novel Vile Bodies. Bright Young Things was the original title of that novel, but it was changed because that phrase was in the papers so much, describing the very set this movie is about, wealthy aristocrats in the years between the two world wars, and it was thought it would look like the book was a sensationalistic cash-in. While we’re doing background, let’s also mention that this has an all-star cast with Emily Mortimer, James McAvoy, David Tennant, Jim Broadbent, Michael Sheen, Stockard Channing, Imelda Staunton, Peter O’Toole, Richard E. Grant, Simon McBurney and the delightful Fenella Woolgar.

Okay, so it’s just prior to WWII, like I said. There’s a kind of insane celebrity culture where the kids of aristocrats do nothing but attend exclusive parties, do coke, and take nothing seriously. When this film was released, they tried to draw parallels to Paris Hilton and our whole contemporary celebrity obsession. Adam Fenwick Symes returns from wherever expecting to marry Nina Blount with the money he’ll get from the sale of his novel, Bright Young Things. The novel is impounded at customs, however, and he is now scraping by, meaning his marriage with Nina is off. He goes to his boarding house, where he makes a thousand pounds off David Tennant as Ginger [his marriage is on!], then loses it as he gives it to Jim Broadbent as a drunken army major to bet on a horse [his marriage is off!] Let’s stop to mention that already Tennant is magnetic and exudes presence, and that any time you’ve got Jim Broadbent on screen, you’re in a good place.

This is one of those movies that is going to be difficult to summarize because it’s very quick and frothy, characters coming in for a second and then vanishing for a while, their stories made up of tiny threads that wind and cross, but don’t provide one main plot line. Mainly we’re concerned with a number of young party people who take nothing seriously, constantly babble in high British flufferisms such as “Oh darling, it’s all too delicious” and “Isn’t that a scream?” and “Oh heavens, isn’t it frightfully ghastly?” which you, like me, may find terribly amusing in itself. The point is, everything is a source of arch mockery and anything serious is simply too dreary, which is precisely what will come back to bite them in the ass later on. This group is also the center of gossip, their every exploit reported in the gossip columns of the papers. In one early episode, a young woman, eager to ingratiate herself into this glamorous set, invites them all back to her house after a party. Fenella Woolgar as Agatha, who is quite distinctive-looking and quite well-cast here, is invited to stay over. She stumbles hung over into breakfast with the girl’s appalled parents, and soon begins reading the morning paper about a wild party at 10 Downing Street and soon realizes the article is about HER, she is at 10 Downing Street right then, and the father of the girl who invited her over is the Prime Minister. When she leaves the premises, the paparazzi are there, and the scandal nearly forces the Prime Minister to resign. But to Agatha it’s all just, ha ha, another dreadful bother.

Nina suggests that Adam ask her father for money, so he goes out to visit him. Her father turns out to be an old coot played with relish by Peter O’Toole, who eats several times his weight in scenery every day. Then journalist Simon, played by James McAvoy, who writes the Chatterbox social column in a London daily, MUST get into a particular party or his career is finished. When he isn’t invited, he dons a wig and beard and sneaks in. At the party Stockard Channing as a missionary has brought her choir of young white girls who attempt gospel for the amusement of the guests. It is made clear, however, that no one wants to hear the preaching that might go with it. Then Simon is found out in his disguise, and thrown out. He calls his paper and reports a bunch of wild outrageous lies about the party—orgies, drugs, crazy sex—then falls asleep with his head under his desk, knowing his career is finished. It is not said, but we are left to observe that even though he is a top gossip journalist, he still so poor he doesn’t have a bed.

Simon out, Adam is put in charge of Chatterbox, which places him in an awkward position, as he cannot really report on his friends, or he will quickly lose them. Nina suggests that he make up new public figures, since no one will really know if they exist. Soon people in his own circle are claiming to know these fictional characters, and the public is seen taking up fictional fashion trends, such a green bowler hats. And now it’s about an hour in—are you ready for things to turn serious? This rather flamboyant fellow Miles—played by Michael Sheen, who would go on to fame playing Tony Blair in The Queen—is dating a race car driver, Tiger. He and Agatha go to see Tiger’s race. Agatha has a blue flag in her hand as she cheers him on a lap, unthinkingly [for she has been told what it means] indicating that he should pull over, which means that he will lose the race. Rather than face the consequences, they just retire to a tent to drink and do coke. Later, Agatha has put on an armband, as a joke, listing her as the relief driver. When they call for a replacement, she, drunk and high, gets behind the wheel and enters the motor race. She is soon driven off the road and continues, terrified, at high speed across the countryside. When Tiger complains that she’d better not ruin his car with her silly antics he is told not to be a dreary bore.

When Agatha is found, her mind has snapped and she is committed to a mental hospital. Adam visits her, and soon so does Miles, who comes in with records and turns the whole thing into a party. Adam has learned that Nina has agreed to marry Ginger, because he has money. As they’re dancing gaily, Adam removes Miles’ sunglasses and sees that he is crying. Tiger, in retaliation, has given Miles’ love letters to the police [homosexuality was illegal in Britain then] and Miles will have to flee the country or face arrest.

Ginger shows up to get Adam, who he knows Nina truly loves, to go away and leave him to marry her. Adam, fed up with everything, agrees to “sell” Nina to him for the very sum he owes in rent. Then—World War II is announced. We next see Adam in the middle of battle. All this social bullshit doesn’t seem quite so serious now, does it? He happens to run into the drunk Major—from the very beginning of the movie—who finally gives him the money he owes him, now increased several times, making Adam wealthy. A moment later, the Major is obliterated by a bomb.

At the end of the war, Adam finds himself in the customs office, where he finds his novel, still in storage. He visits the home of Ginger, who is now poor. He meets their son [who is likely his own], and learns that Nina is still alive—he had heard that the hotel where she lived had been destroyed. Learning that Ginger is about to be arrested, he finds out how much money he needs and offers to “buy” Nina and the child from him. The movie ends as we see her return home to find lit candles lining the stairs and filling their apartment, coming in and their having a glorious reunion. Which may either carry you away on sweeping waves of true romance, or may have you, like me, thinking “Um…. FIRE HAZARD!!!”

I liked it. As I said, I find all that British fluttery phrasing and amusing snobbery totally enchanting, I could watch that stuff forever, and I the ever-moving, slightly manic quality of the editing and direction, with the camera just a bit too fluid, the lights just a touch too bright, suited the overheated atmosphere the characters and story exist in. I recommended this a friend of mine who didn’t like it, resenting the characters’ irresponsibility, and “figuring they got their just desserts” when things get serious in the second half. But to me, the film took an ironic distance from the characters from the start—finding their antics funny isn’t the same as endorsing them—and showed their world as highly unstable, superficial, unforgiving and cutthroat even while wondering at its excesses. For example, when Agatha cluelessly almost costs the Prime Minister his job, it’s appalling, and we have to be a little shocked at how insensitive she is. At the same time, it’s a hilarious circumstance, and her oblivious belief that her charm should paper over any mistake is funny—but that doesn’t mean the point of view of the film is approving. Certainly the episode showing Simon’s desperation to get into a party—and the ruin of his career over it—show the damage this social set can bring.

In the second half, I was a little moved for the characters. Not because they don’t deserve what they got—they do—but because they exist in [and have created for themselves] a world that has no place for seriousness or loyalty. So when they find themselves having problems, they have no one to turn to, because having a problem or having to deal with something seriously is “simply too dreary.” This is exemplified most clearly by Miles’ crying behind his sunglasses as he dances and laughs—knowing no one in his set has time for anything but mirth and laughter. And then of course, World War II turns everything serious, takes their wealth away, and ends the party forever.

The only misstep, for me, comes at the very end with all the candles. Not just because of the serious and distracting fire hazard, but it’s just a little too obvious a play to end on a Miramaxy romantic, crowd-pleasing note. One can understand how, after 100 minutes of acerbic wit they would want to throw the mallgoers a little romantic little bone, but sorry—ten points off, as far as I’m concerned.

Incidentally, I have since read the original novel, and realize that Fry has changed quite a bit for the movie, but done so in an extremely clever and intelligent way that gives the movie a comprehesible form and solid shape, as the book is even more fluttery, delicate and scattered.

Anyway, a nice, intelligent, clever and entertaining British comedy with some resonance to today’s culture of the rich and entitled and vapid celebrity culture. Now if Kim Kardashian would only go mad after a car crash, we’d be all set.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, if you like clever British pictures with a lot of high-society wit.