Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Handful of Dust (1988)

Directed by Charles Sturridge and produced by Derek Granger -- both of Brideshead Revisited fame --  A Handful of Dust is a made-for-television film based on a novel by Evelyn Waugh.  It is available in DVD format.

The story is set sometime between the two world wars. Tony Last (James Wilby) is the squire of a British country estate, Hetton,  on which rests his ancestral home.  (Although it is not clear from the movie, the novel describes Hetton as a former abbey.  One supposes it came into Last's family's hands during Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries.  Afterward, it went through various structural changes and was redone in the neo-Gothic style during the 19th century.)

Tony loves Hetton and sacrifices a great deal to maintain it in the condition and use he believes befits it and his family history.  Yet, aside from the many servants, the only occupants are Tony, his son John Andrew, and his physically lovely but shallow wife, Brenda (Kristin Scott Thomas).  Tony is an attentive father, kind to the servants, and magnanimous to the villagers but has little interest in entertaining "gossips" from the city or spending time in London.

In response to a very casual invitation from Tony, a young man of poor means and remote social acquaintance, John Beaver (Rupert Graves), shows up at Hetton one weekend with the blessing of his opportunistic mother (Judi Dench).  Brenda does not hesitate long in letting Beaver know how little she cares for Hetton and how bored she is with Tony.

Beaver is more than willing to encourage Brenda and before long Brenda embarks on a campaign to make Beaver her plaything.  Brenda fancies Beaver and the idea of grooming him for her own pleasure appeals to her.  Rarely has a woman in book or film been so lacking in scruples about adultery or this particular form of it.  Brenda's eagerness and Beaver's mother's encouragement soon overcome Beaver's mild resistance to being bought, paid for, and trained.

Brenda takes a flat in London to facilitate her affair with Beaver and claims to take up the study of economics in order to justify her long stints in London.  Everyone in their social circle knows what is going on but no one tells Tony. One weekend Brenda goes home to sleep with Tony to keep him happy.  Naively, Tony responds with a heart-breaking gratitude.

When the couple's son, John Andrew, is tragically killed in a horse-riding accident on the day of a fox hunt, Brenda is initially relieved that the John who has died is her son John Andrew, not her lover John Beaver.  Soon there is a complete breakdown of Tony and Brenda's marriage and Brenda demands a divorce.  Tony, with predictable decency, agrees not only to the divorce but to take on the role of the adulterer for legal purposes.  But, when Tony discovers that Brenda's demands are such that he would have to give up Hetton in order to meet them, Tony finally understands that -- as he aptly puts it -- he would be buying Beaver for Brenda.  At that point, Tony has finally reached his limit.

The story then makes a very abrupt shift from realism to something closer to surrealism.  Abandoning the legal proceedings so as not to surrender Hetton, Tony goes to the jungle of South America with an eccentric explorer who claims to "know the Indian mind" and has brought along mechanical mice to charm the natives.  Unfortunately, the explorer does not know the Indian mind well enough to stay alive in the jungle and Tony is soon at the mercy of -- and imprisoned by -- a local chief "Mr. Todd" (Alec Guinness) who is half English and half native.  Todd is an illiterate who forces Tony to read volume after volume of Dickens to him.

It is very difficult to make the leap from the first to the second part of the story until one comprehends the theme that ties the two together -- the profound savagery of fallen man regardless of surface accidents.  The Guiness character's use of Tony for his own pleasure is not a great deal different than Brenda's use of Beaver for hers.  The natives' festivities are only superficially unlike those of the London socialites.

The women in the story are particularly loathsome. Brenda is having her sole (yes, the bottom of her foot, not her soul) read by a fortune teller at a women's party in London when the news arrives that John Andrew is dead.  Tony seeks consolation from a rather ghoulish American woman ("Mrs. Rattery") who had flown her own plane into Hetton the day of the accident.  She is a mother who has abandoned her children or lost them to their father's custody. The best she can do is insist that Tony play a child's card game with her. A girl astride a motor scooter is part of the congestion that produces the accident that causes the death of John Andrew.   An ugly native woman bargains roughly with the explorer and demands cigarettes of Tony. The prostitute who is supposed to pose as Tony's partner in adultery during the divorce effort at Brighton is too lazy to even do the job she's been hired for. She brings along her daughter and the daughter too is rude and demanding. The only appealing (and womanly) woman in the entire story is the nanny who tenderly selects the clothing for John Andrew's burial.

Of the wealth packed away in this story and this film, more is revealed on subsequent viewings.  And for me at least, there is more to be revealed.  That is, I am still trying to make sense of the presence of foxes at different points in the story.  At the very end of the film, the foxes are white and they are in cages. Brenda is shown them and looks at them wistfully.  I suspect the foxes are an allusion to the Canticle of Canticles 2:15, "Catch us the little foxes that destroy the vines:  for our vineyard hath flourished."  The Church understands the foxes to be false teachers that seek to destroy the vineyard of the Lord, i.e. the Church.

Ultimately, A Handful of Dust is a parable about original sin, concupiscence, and man's need for redemption.  Tony's goodness is a natural goodness uninformed by an adult religiosity. Tony is an Anglican who loved to take John Andrew to church on Sunday and sing the hymns but he did not want to talk with the vicar about religion after John Andrew died.  Later, when asked, Tony said he guessed he believed in God but he had not thought much about it.

The novel A Handful of Dust was published four years after Waugh converted to Catholicism.  Waugh does not preach, but the sermon is there in the form of Hetton: as its label indicates, neo-Gothic architecture was inspired by the medieval period.  And, of course, it was during the Middle Ages that authentic Christianity most thoroughly imbued society.  In clinging to Hetton, Tony is unconsciously clinging to the Church, which alone possesses the cure for human savagery.

The story and the film are permeated with the darkest of humor.  They are certainly not for everyone.   But I give the film five roses.


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