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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 based on the novel of the same title by Evelyn Waugh is a portrait of the decaying English aristocracy post-WW1, a rich source of material for English filmmakers (Sturridge was one of the directors of the smash 1981 television series, Brideshead Revisited, also based on a Waugh novel). It was, at least according to Waugh, a strangely passionless world well-reflected as such by Sturridge, albeit risking thereby a film with a rather 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the current Lasts, who with their young son, John Andrew, live a life of financially-straitened self-indulgence withdrawn from the realities of the  modern world. Tony is happy with this state of affairs but Brenda longs for some good times and takes an apartment in London which leads to an affair with a young man named Thomas Beaver (Rupert Graves). The fling, which is known to everybody but Brenda's doting husband, is apparently perfectly normal for London Society and 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. No doubt Waugh whose wife left him in real life, was drawing on and exaggerating his own experiences.

This hypocritical moral universe is something with which we are very familiar from movies about 18th century French aristocracy (think of Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons that was released the same year) but in comparison with such the British iteration seems incongruously passionless.  In this respect the performances seem to be almost in a state of suspended animation. This is nowhere more evident than in the scenes dealing with the death of the child, which is summarily dispensed with as little more than a bother. Perhaps this condition of cruel indifference is the point and the later tonally darker part of the film in which Tony heads into the jungles of  South American jungle only to become the prisoner of an eccentric recluse (Alec Guinness) who likes to have Dickens read aloud to him, suggests that this is the case.

Despite the frostiness, A Handful Of Dust is a splendid-looking film with carefully detailed production design and is a fine if unusually bitter addition to films depicting the last days of the English upper class.




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