The Evelyn Waugh Collection, recently released on DVD by Acorn Media, includes A Handful of Dust (released in theaters in 1988) and Scoop (shown on Masterpiece Theatre in 1990) based on the novels by Evelyn Waugh. Sharply funny, witty and smart, these films take satirical aim straight at the heart of British society.
A Handful of Dust pokes fun at both the British aristocracy and the merchant class. Brenda Last (a radiant, young Kristin Scott Thomas) is bored to tears with her country mouse husband Tony (James Wilby). Spending most of her time in London, Brenda takes up with the young social climber John Beaver (Rupert Graves) until a horrific accident in the country changes everything. Brenda decides she wants a divorce and Tony agrees to it, going so far as to pretend infidelity so as to give his estranged wife grounds. Brenda gets greedy, however, wishing to keep her young paramour interested, and soon her husband balks.
In Scoop, a case of mistaken identity sends young nature columnist, William Boot, on assignment as a war correspondent to war-torn Ishmaelia in Africa. The problem, besides Boot’s complete ineptitude, is that there really isn’t any war in Ishmaelia – the media has descended upon this poor, dry country and, initially finding nothing to report upon, creates the news they are sent to cover. Poor Boot, played in a charming daze by Michael Maloney, finds himself over his head at once, surrounded by bored and brash journalists, sinister government ministers and a beautiful married woman.
A Handful of Dust is tonally uneven, at times wickedly funny and at others morbid and disturbing but without that fine balance that marks a successful dark comedy. Scoop seems to know better what it intends to be: a clever and funny, if slowly-paced, satire of politics and journalism. The supporting cast is incredibly strong as well, with Denholm Elliott, as Boot’s put-upon foreign editor, and Donald Pleasance, as the aristocratic publisher of the newspaper.
The DVD extras are slim, with cast filmographies and a biography of Evelyn Waugh.
I haven’t read either A Handful of Dust or Scoop, so I am unsure of how well these adaptations stick to the books. The costumes and settings are lush and gorgeous, however, evoking the wealth and entitlement of the times. Waugh’s sharp observations are conveyed with intelligence and biting humor. I suspect fans of Waugh’s written work will not be disappointed by these eloquent visual interpretations.