In one of the few moments of self-reflection in Stephen Fry’s “Bright Young Things,” Agatha (Fenella Woolgar) pauses to ask her party-animal friends, “We’ve never had a party in a mental home before, have we? Or have we?” The moment of reflection is brief; the bright young things are eager to rev up the momentum of their continual party, even in a location so ridiculous and obscene as a mental home.
“Bright Young Things” is a fast-paced, easy-to-absorb adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Vile Bodies” (adapted by Fry). The film’s pace is on par with the lives of its characters, an eclectic group of British socialites whose interwar existence is based on frivolity and fun. Luckily, the film also manages to capture the desperation behind the facade of fun. Meaning, when the film is over, the audience is left with more than just the feeling that it was an indifferent bystander to the main event, the enthralling social world. “Bright Young Things” thus manages to resonate even after the joyride is over.
Desperate to avoid the impending ennui of a life with no purpose or responsibility, the main characters attend an intense, endless stream of lively parties full of music, drink, drugs and scandal. They frequent horse races and garden parties. They dine at expensive restaurants, snort cocaine and drink Absinthe. And while they’re recovering, they peruse the gossip columns, eating up tidbits about their own racy lives, so meticulously reported by tabloid writers who are even more desperate and empty than they are. Prodded by a demanding American editor, Lord Monomark (Dan Ackroyd), the gossip columnists must go to extreme lengths to get stories while balancing the fragile emotions of the social elite, upon who they depend for scandal and invitations.
In many ways, the dog-eat-dog angle on the world of high society never fails to be interesting fodder for movies. Add a decent love story, beautiful cinematography and a great soundtrack to the mix and a watchable film pops out. “Bright Young Things” has all these elements. However, the genuine Adam Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore) and his love for Nina Blount (Emily Mortimer) make the film memorable. Both Campbell Moore and Mortimer turn in quality performances. Neither Nina nor Adam can find the time in their busy social schedules to get married, nor can they find the money. One scene documents the couple trying to get married and elope but finding their schedules too booked and their pocketbooks too empty. What they lack in money, however, they make up for with real love. Or is love enough?
“Bright Young Things” adeptly builds up and captures the tensions of the times: the dizzying pace of the characters’ social lives, the love story between Adam and Nina and the impending war. All this craziness is kept afloat largely by characters that are just the right mix of cartoon and reality; they are played by a phenomenal cast that includes Jim Broadbent as a drunken major, as well as Peter O’Toole and Richard E. Grant.
As the movie ends, however, the craziness seems to quietly slither off into the war; the tension that has been so carefully constructed is dropped and forgotten. War is a sufficient reason to forget frivolity, but in the context of the movie, this is not communicated to the audience. The brief war scene at the end does not fit in with the rest of the film. The few scenes post-war are similarly disjointed and rushed. This is, probably not coincidentally, where the film diverges from the novel. Fry should stick to what he did beautifully throughout most of the film: capturing the essence of the high life without glorifying it.
These bright young things are living in a state of almost-reality, an intense world of constant partying with very minor financial worries. At least at Yale, we go to class.