Satire is not always easy to appreciate. Too broad and it displeases the critics; too narrow and it displeases general audiences. The critics branded Merchant Ivory films ‘heritage cinema’, a lazy catch-all that suggested ladies in big frocks emoting beneath proscenium arches. Their coded meaning was that the films were politically conservative. But they had made a sweeping assumption that was utterly wrong-headed.
The Merchant-Ivory team’s writer, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, an Indian liberal living in New York, had a remit to craft wonderfully intelligent screenplays from good books, period. Likewise, director Charles Sturridge was producing his own version of ‘Heritage cinema’, first with ‘Brideshead Revisited’, and with this coruscating satire about the New Philistinism. Confused critics hated it.
Because Sturridge did something very clever with the film of Evelyn Waugh’s black comedy that was completely misinterpreted when it came out in 1988. He played it dead straight, turning it into Greek tragedy. There’s a good reason why James Wilby’s Tony has the surname ‘Last’ – he’ll prove to be the end of his line. Just as his wife, Brenda, always seen in fox-furs, is later confronted by the caged fox that she is doomed to become.
As was the case in ‘Howard’s End’, ‘A Handful of Dust’ concerns property, a country house called Hetton that has been in Tony’s family’s hands for centuries. He has married beautiful Brenda (Kristen Scott-Thomas) and they have a son who will inherit. Bored in the country, she starts a dalliance with pretty London wastrel Beaver (Rupert Graves) that leads to tragedy. That’s the framework – except that the tragedy occurs not at the end but the midpoint, and the fallout from it brings in Judi Dench, Angelica Huston and Alec Guinness in a comedy so black that the final chapter of the book was often repackaged in collections of horror stories.
Sturridge brilliantly opens the film with a surreal dream that will only make sense after the film has ended. By the time Tony Last heads for Brazil armed with a box of clockwork mice, we should have realised we were a very long way indeed from the patriotic cinema of ‘Chariots of Fire’ – this is about the end of empire, the rise of commercialism, the failure to adapt, the hypocrisy and pointlessness of moral decency. And, typical to nearly all of Waugh’s novels, it features that most unfashionable hero, the Hopeless Englishman.
There’s no Blu-Ray of a brilliant written film that would really benefit from sharp definition, while Dench and Guinness, on screen for just a few minutes, stay in the mind as the smiling, sinister villains due to inherit the most in this ghastly new world.