On Screen: A Handful of Dust

Imagine that you are hearing a piece by Mozart played at the wrong tempo by a first-rate orchestra. All the notes in the score are sounded. The familiar melodies and counter-melodies run their course. The composer’s instrumentation is adhered to, and the players achieve an aural voluptuousness that ravishes the ear. Yet the result is freakish. Even if you don’t know the score well, you may gradually become aware that something is amiss. What was meant to sparkle has become languorous. What was meant to make you smile has become a vain attempt to make you sigh. Instead of sighing, you may yawn. If you can imagine all the above, you’ll know how I felt while watching the film adaptation of A Handful of Dust.

It has been years since I first read the Waugh novel, and I did not reread it in preparation for viewing the film. I did not want to use the book as a stick with which to beat the movie. But though I did enjoy much of the film as it unfolded, I felt progressively more and more impatient with it. Questions started nagging at me: Why such a leisurely pace for such a tight, wry story? Why did the rolling green lawns and misty air of the English countryside seem all too reminiscent of those imported British dramas seen on PBS? And, above all, why such patience with seemingly trivial characters?

I couldn’t remember asking myself such questions while reading the book, yet the story on screen seemed identical to that of the book or, at least, what I remembered of it. So, while wanting to judge the movie on its own merits, I was driven back to the novel to discover why a film with such witty dialogue, good acting, and handsome photography was so irritatingly droopy.

Upon rereading, I discovered that 4espite the elimination of a few plot strands for the sake of concision, the film had indeed been remarkably faithful to the book’s plot. Tony Last, upper class and moderately wealthy, dwells with his wife, Brenda, and his son at his ancestral estate, Hetton Abbey. Tony relishes his country squire existence with all its attendant advantages and obligations. Brenda, a magnetically beautiful and graceful woman, is moderately loving towards husband and son, moderately satisfied with her position as chatelaine, and moderately bored with the daily routine that position forces her to follow.

The boredom wins out. She takes a lover: John Beaver, an inveterate party-hopper and self-invited guest at estates like Hetton. A sponger too insecure to be a cad, Beaver is at first taken on by Brenda more as a pet than an all-consuming passion; but his presence in London finally induces her to rent a flat in the city. She soon puts more than geographical distance between herself and her husband, a distance that becomes unbridgeable when the only Last child is killed in a riding accident.

An increasingly squalid divorce suit drives Tony to put Brenda into financial limbo while he leaves on a ridiculously ill-planned expedition into the Brazilian jungle. A bizarre twist forces Tony into permanent jungle residence with a Mr. Todd, a half-caste who loves the novels of Dickens. Hetton Abbey is inherited by Tony’s impoverished relatives. This denouement is diabolically ironic: Tony, the immensely content squire of mild English greenery ends up as the immensely discontent tenant of the jungle lord Todd amid fetid Brazilian greenery. Brenda, the would-be urban butterfly of the best London social circuits, becomes a city girl all right but, lacking financial means, is more of a poor relation than a socialite. As for the social drifter, Beaver, he decamps for the land of drifters, the U.S.A., to seek his fortune.

Director Charles Sturridge and his scriptwriters have grasped many of the ironies and contrasts of the book. For instance, in the early scenes at Hetton, Brenda is often photographed in long shot sitting motionless, stranded in the spaciousness of the rooms and dwarfed by the huge and solid furniture. In contrast, Tony is always shot in the middle distance and in motion as he cheerily does his daily manorial tour of duty.

The filmmakers give us glimpses of the Brazilian scenery under the opening credits. Ominous yet lovely native music is heard under these jungle scenes, and this music is fleetingly reprised throughout the movie even when the setting is urban. This accomplishes two things: it prefigures Tony’s ultimate catastrophe, and it hints that even in the midst of so-called civilization, Tony Last (Waugh’s names are loosely allegorical) is a medieval man surrounded by twentieth-century barbarians.

The cast was shrewdly chosen and performs well. James Wilby captures the precarious innocence of Tony, the unquenchable schoolboy baffled by adult duplicity. Kristin Scott Thomas is unable, for reasons specified below, to realize the calculating side of Brenda, but she makes her believably desirable and poised. Perhaps best of all, Rupert Graves, walking an actor’s tight-rope, doesn’t make Beaver overtly slimy but never lets us lose sight of the man’s emotional stuntedness, the very trait that attracts Brenda. This is the sort of performance that goes underpraised because it is achieved with tiny inflections and side-glances, and also because the character himself is rather wan. Graves has brought off a poisonous little masterpiece.

All of the supporting cast is good, except Anjelica Huston, who makes the odd but compassionate Mrs. Rattery a garishly painted amazon. Judi Dench is just right as Beaver’s mother: pert, swift, and greedy. In the plum part of Mr. Todd, Alec Guinness fails to play the half-caste that Mr. Todd admits being, yet the veteran actor gives us a man so serenely strange, so thoroughly detached from ordinary human commerce, that one can well believe this soft-spoken monster capable of anything.

So much to praise, so much to recommend. But why, then, is the movie somewhat sluggish while the book bristles?

Though the filmmakers understand much about the shape and setting of the book, they fail to capture its flow. The pace of A Handful of Dust, like the pace of any early Waugh novel, is head-long without being hasty. Each brief scene makes one or two distinct points, then stops. The fact that Waugh stops a scene at a particular moment marks that moment as a significant one. The writing is ruthlessly spare, with the dialogue often carrying the burden of the action. Even when a character is merely chatting, Waugh, by clever selection and juxtaposition, uses that chat to expose folly.

In the film, however, much of the dialogue and action is comfortably cushioned by handsome decor and idyllic scenery. While Waugh cuts to the bone, Sturridge allows a certain layer of visual fat. Too many of the scenes at Hetton look as if they were staged to bedazzle American anglophiles with the splendors of English country life. Of course, they are meant to make us share Tony’s contentment with his country existence. But Waugh was careful to show us that Tony is in love with the homely routine at Hetton—the visiting with tenants, the repair work, etc.—not the prettiness of the estate. (In fact, Hetton is described as a rather tasteless building.) Even the jungle scenery at the end, which Waugh employs to define an earthly hell, is rendered lovely by Peter Hannan’s cinematography, like the back-drops of TV ads for Caribbean cruises.

The scenes of partying and clubhopping in the middle of the film are much better, because here Sturridge zeroes in on the faces and on dialogue. But even some of the most intimate scenes register as smooth, well-balanced, and very “in period.” British film-makers have become too facile at wrapping up chunks of their history in serenely pretty packages. Waugh, writing of his contemporaries (of whom he mostly disapproved), wasn’t trying for smoothness. He was often savage and peremptory.

Even more harmfully, Sturridge and company haven’t taken the proper measure of the two main characters, aside from finding the right actors to play them. They diminish Tony and apologize for Brenda.

Sturridge is careful to give James Wilby a scene in which to mourn silently over his little boy’s corpse, and Wilby accurately conveys the grief of a normally non-demonstrative man. And later the audience can easily understand Tony’s embarrassment during the divorce proceedings and his revulsion at the threatened loss of his home. But Waugh’s real point is that these individual set-backs add up to a new, horrific vision of life for the sufferer. When he flees Britain for the expedition, Tony isn’t just leaving a messy marital and financial situation. He is trying to flee the spiritual chaos that has so swiftly enveloped him:

. . . for a month now he had lived in a world suddenly bereft of order; it was as though the whole reasonable and decent constitution of things, the sum of all he had experienced or learned to experience or learned to expect, were an inconspicuous, inconsiderable object mislaid somewhere on the dressing table; no outrageous circumstance in which he found himself, no new mad thing brought to his notice could add a jot to the all-encompassing chaos that shrieked about his ears.

That is what Tony is trying to leave when he goes into the jungle. What he is pursuing when he accompanies the foolish Doctor Messinger on the quest for a lost city isn’t simply an archeological dig but the restoration of his medieval vision of domestic order:

. . . Carpet and canopy, tapestry and velvet, portcullis and bastion, waterfowl on the moat . . . high overhead in a sky of sapphire and swansdown silver bells chiming in a turret of alabaster.

Tony Last in these final scenes is a spiritual pilgrim and this is our reason for caring what happens to him. Sturridge provides no cinematic equivalent for these psychological passages, however, so when the film’s Tony leaves for Brazil it appears to be nothing but the harebrained stunt of an upper-class twit.

Conversely, the film’s Brenda is coddled by the director. Though she commits the same adultery as the book’s character, there are little moments throughout the film that soften our impression of her. When Marjorie, Brenda’s sister, expresses her surprise that Brenda fancies Beaver, Waugh simply has his heroine reply, “Oh well, I don’t see such a lot of young men,” without adding authorial comment. But Sturridge takes an extremely tight close-up of Kristin Scott Thomas’s gorgeous, wistful face and records her murmur of the words as the universal plaint of Neglected Womanhood. (In fact, neither in book nor movie is Tony ever shown neglecting Brenda.)

When Brenda has her last conversation, by phone, with her husband, Waugh simply records her words as Tony hears them: words that express her callous indifference. When Tony abruptly tries to close the conversation, Brenda, alarmed by his change of tone, asks him not to ring off. Sturridge milks this moment with another poignant close-up of Scott Thomas, whose expression signalled to me that she was willing to give her marriage another chance, a sentiment nowhere borne out by the story.

I would hazard that Waugh himself was in love with his Brenda. He constantly emphasizes her physical beauty and grace. Yet he never softens our view of her behavior. He doesn’t flinch from including an episode in which Brenda tries to put a pal of hers into Tony’s bed in order to distract him from her own infidelity, a cold-blooded act completely eliminated in the film. Waugh sees Brenda’s infidelity as part of twentieth-century moral anarchy. His affection for her is partly that of an artist’s for his own creation, and partly a romantic’s for a belle dame sans merci.

But Sturridge’s indulgence of Brenda is that of a man used to a society that countenances casual, serial divorces and open marriages. He presents Brenda’s adultery not as a fall from grace but as the flailing of a woman trapped in a society that gives women too few outlets for their energies. Francois Truffaut, trying to explain why he hated the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, called the Italian director a would-be “psychologist of the feminine soul . . . Antonioni . . . says, ‘women of the world, I have understood you.'” It seems to me that Sturridge, in his portrayal of Brenda, is saying in effect, “Women in the audience, I understand you.”

Charles Sturridge also directed the television film of Brideshead Revisited, and in my opinion did a remarkable job. But Brideshead was written by an older, mellower Waugh, a man who had himself succumbed to Tony Last’s nostalgia for the remnants of the medieval in English life. When, in Brideshead, Sturridge lovingly fixed his camera on fox hunts and the like, he is simply capturing Waugh’s longings for such things on film. Sturridge has brought the same slow, stately style to bear on Dust, an earlier, less discursive, harsher book. His film is wistful and non-judgmental. It lacks the fizz of Waugh’s anger.

  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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