Bright Young Things (2003)
Bright Young Things plunges right into its Jazz Age mood and period with a frenzied theme party, "Inferno," filmed with red filters for its hellish allusion, with "Sing, Sing, Sing" on the soundtrack injecting frenetic energy and placing the time squarely in the 1930’s. It’s the young British aristocracy, dancing and snorting cocaine, oblivious to the Great Depression, despising the paparazzi but glorying in the publicity–the targets of the Evelyn Waugh’s darkly satirical novel, Vile Bodies, on which the film is based.
At the center of the multi-character story is Adam Syme (Stephen Campbell Moore) who has written a novel, the manuscript of which is confiscated by a customs officer at the start. "If we can’t stamp out literature in the country, we can at least stop its being brought in from outside," he is told.
This unfortunate event leaves Adam broke (and, indeed, in debt for the advance on the book), preventing him from marrying the love of his life, beautiful Nina Blount (Emily Mortimer), who loves him in return, but is all too aware of the need for money to sustain the style that their crowd enjoys.
The film follows Symes’ ups and downs while sketching in the characters of the people in his life: his eccentric father-in-law-to-be (Peter O’Toole in a droll cameo); Lord Monomark (Dan Ackroyd), publisher of the Daily Excess; Simon Balcairn (James McAvoy), gossip columnist for Monomark; Agatha (a supremely comical Fenella Woolgar), a party girl who has a try at auto racing; Miles (Michael Sheen), fey and gay and rather indiscreet. Stockard Channing gets one scene as an American bible-thumping preacher and Sir John Mills has no lines, but rather simply snorts them. Simon Callow plays the disenthroned King of Anatolia and Jim Broadbent is an elusive Army major who owes our hero a substantial sum that he won betting on a horse. The partying never ceases, even as the thoughtless revelers leave a trail of damage behind them, including suicide and insanity.
It all concludes with the outbreak of World War II. Adam comes back from the battlefield believing Nina to be dead and seeking out the son she told him they had together. It’s a coda, not in the novel, that writer-director Stephen Fry has tacked on and, therefore might just enrage Waugh purists. It does slip into a romantic mode of which the ever acerbic Waugh might indeed have disapproved, but it doesn’t spoil the film. Prior to that sequence, Fry has achieved a difficult and tricky balance between dark satire and meaningful characterizations, poking hard satirical jabs at his subjects while keeping the leads sufficiently real to be sympathetic. And he seems as fascinated with color as Zhang Yimou is in Hero. In addition to the red Inferno party scene, there’s a blue party scene, and Nina’s apartment is dominated by an elegant celadon green.
Fry, best known as a first-rate actor (Wilde, Gosford Park), makes his debut here as both screenwriter and director, but Bright Young Things has the complexity, along with the verve and polish and style expected of a seasoned filmmaker.