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United Kingdom 1988
Directed by
Charles Sturridge
118 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Handful Of Dust, A

A Handful Of Dust is a film that intrigues although possibly not for the right reasons.  Based on the novel of the same title by Evelyn Waugh it is a portrait of the decaying English aristocracy post-WW1, a rich source of material for filmmakers (Charles Sturridge was one of the directors of the smash 1981 television series, Brideshead Revisited, also based on a Waugh novel). It intrigues because it is never clear how much of the strangely passionless world depicted is meant as a reflection of reality (or at least Waugh’s idea of it) and how much is a consequence of the film-makers’ aesthetic choices. As I have not read Waugh’s novel I suspect that the latter have over-emphasized the dispassion and this tends to give the film an unduly and improbably flat emotional range.

The setting is Hetton Abbey, ancestral seat of the Last family and in particular, Tony (James Wilby) and Brenda (Kristin Scott Thomas), the current Lasts, who with their young son, John Andrew, live a life of bygone and financially-straitened elegance withdrawn from the ugly modern world. Tony is happy with this state of affairs but Brenda longs for some good times and takes an apartment in London and starts an affair with a young man named Thomas Beaver (Rupert Graves). This is where the film gets a little odd as it proposes Brenda’s affair, which is known to everybody but her doting husband, is perfectly normal for polite London society. It is only when she attempts to force her husband to sell his ancestral home in order to support her and her feckless lover that she earns any disapproval.

This curious moral (or immoral) universe is something with which we are very familiar from movies about 18th century French aristocracy (think of Stephen Frear's Dangerous Liaisons that was released the same year) but seems incongruous here, none of the principal characters seeming flesh-and-blood English folk. In this respect James Wilby is a questionable choice for the lead, one being unable to tell whether the insubstantiality of Tony Last is due to the actor’s emotional limitation  or the character's (is anyone THAT nice? Apparently Waugh, whose wife ran off, was drawing on his own experiences here).. Kristin Scott Thomas too seems to be almost in a state of suspended animation as she rides inexorably off the rails (but seemingly by the film’s end, back onto another set). This is nowhere more evident than in the scenes dealing with the death of their child, which is summarily dispensed with as little more than a bother. Perhaps this condition of cruel indifference is the point and the latter part of the film,which was derived from Waugh's short story The Man Who Loved Dickens and in which Tony heads into the jungles of  South American jungle only to become becomes the prisoner of an eccentric recluse (Alec Guinness) who likes to have Dickens read aloud to him, suggests exactly this. But whilst this section of the film gets the banality of evil chillingly right it is not so effectively realized elsewhere.

Nevertheless, A Handful Of Dust is a splendid-looking film with carefully detailed production design and a fine but oddly bitter addition to the catalogue of cinematic Edwardiana.

DVD Extras: Audio Commentary by Charles Sturridge; Original theatrical trailer

Available from: Umbrella Entertainment




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