A Handful of Dust (1988)
Brenda Leaves it for Beaver
In all fairness I've never read the Evelyn Waugh novel which "A Handful of Dust" is adapted from and I am not a fan of stiff upper lip period dramas, Downtown Abbey is not on my viewing list. But despite this "A Handful of Dust" looked like an interesting movie, it had a fair few star names and the storyline which sees an upper crust marriage collapse due to a wife's infidelity didn't sound that stuffy. Sadly whilst it may have looked interesting it sadly didn't end up that way, feeling stilted, disjointed and at times a little strange with almost a feeling of 2 movies spliced together. Maybe those who have read Waugh's novel will be able to appreciate it to its full extent and fill in the gaps which have formed during adaptation but it just didn't really come to life for me.
Tony (James Wilby) and Brenda Last (Kristin Scott Thomas - Confessions of a Shopaholic) seem to have the perfect marriage, the estate they live on is huge having been in Tony's family for generations and whilst not rolling in money don't go without out nor does their son John Andrew (Jackson Kyle) who Tony dotes on. But that all changes when thanks to a chance meeting young socialite John Beaver (Rupert Graves) comes to spend the weekend with them and Brenda becomes very interested in the fun loving young man. So interested she talks Tony into renting a flat for her in the city and under a series of lies ends up embarking on an affair with Beaver, an affair which starts a chain of unfortunate events which changes Tony and Brenda's lives for ever.
"A Handful of Dust" is one of those movies which gives us a glimpse of the end as we see Tony swimming in some form of rain forest lake before then jumping to the start. Now that start is quite interesting as it establishes that Tony loves the stately home which he now presides over, passed down through the generations and enjoys being there more than he does in other peoples company. That is with the exception of his wife Brenda who doesn't share his feelings and not only dislikes their stately home but craves company beyond her husband and son. It makes you wonder who in this relationship has changed because it is plainly obvious whilst on the surface they are a loving couple they certainly don't share the same ideals underneath.
Now it has to be said that through out "A Handful of Dust" you begin to hate Brenda more and more especially when she starts her affair with the more social John Beaver. The fact that Brenda not only gets Tony to rent her a flat in the city but goes from visiting the city on the occasional weekend to living there almost full time just makes you detest her. And that is nothing when you not only consider that she basically abandons her young son by doing so. You genuinely feel for Tony because whilst he is a bit of a sap he is genuinely a very decent guy.
Things do come to a head in quite a surprising manner leading to a grand moment of heartlessness from Brenda as she wants a divorce. You go from hating Brenda to thinking she is a real bitch, so polite in her letter to Tony telling him that she wants a divorce so that she can marry John Beaver. And it gets worse because of the way Tony deals with it all, being the gentlemen in the whole thing even when Brenda tries to screw him for more money.
Now all of which is quite good, it is disjointed as characters seem to come and go with no real explanation and often they bring a rather strange scene with them. A scene which sees Tony playing animal snap with Mrs. Rattery is bemusing and you end up feeling the importance of her character has been lost in adapting the novel into a movie. But that is nothing compared to what happens next with Tony deciding to go on an exploration of the Brazilian jungles which not only leads us back to that opening scene but introduces us to the deceptively evil Mr. Todd who imposes a control over Tony when he is rescued. This jungle element to the story feels distinctly different to the solemn scenes of infidelity and divorce and frankly feels too different in style with an imagery which wouldn't look out of place in National Geographic.
Now here is the thing, between the different styles and what has been left out of the movie during adaptation it seems to have lost its point. It feels like a movie which is meant to be about Tony basically being screwed by those who are below him, John Beaver who thanks to his pushy mother sets out to become part of the elite set and in doing so stealing Brenda and then Mr. Todd who imposes control over Tony. Yet it doesn't really come across or at least not in an effective manner, you end up having to read between the lines especially when you haven't read the book and as such there are far too many gaps to fill in.
Despite this not only does "A Handful of Dust" have an impressive cast which includes Judi Dench, Alec Guinness, Anjelica Huston and Rupert Graves but is also wonderful acted by all involved. Kristin Scott Thomas as Brenda comes across as every ounce a callous, cold hearted bitch who hides behind a loving facade. If Waugh's intention was for us to hate Brenda and feel no pity for her when life conspires against her then Kristin does it masterfully and brings a new meaning to the word shallow. And totally opposite you have James Wilby as Tony a character so honest, so nice and decent that you can't but help feel for him especially when we are felt to feel like co-conspirators as Brenda cheats on him. If I have a criticism is that like so many period dramas the stoicism when things go wrong, the stiff upper lip ends up cruelly wrong and too much.
What this all boils down to is that there are some things about "A Handful of Dust" which I liked especially the acting from James Wilby and Kristin Scott Thomas. But then it feels like in adapting Waugh's novel huge chunks have been discarded and so it becomes disjointed with characters that come and go with little explanation. Maybe for those who are familiar with Waugh's story will enjoy this adaptation, able to fill in the gaps but for me it just didn't really work.
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