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Richard E. Grant and Helena Bonham Carter shun middle-class mediocrity in, 'A Merry War,' the film adaptation of George Orwell's 'Keep the Aspidistra Flying'.

Published September 18, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

There may never have been an author who had less tolerance for the bohemian romanticization of poverty than George Orwell. His 1936 novel "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" is a compassionate satire that hovers right on the edge of tragedy. "Flying" is about how Gordon Comstock, an aspiring and utterly mediocre poet, comes to accept the ordinary middle-class life he's despised. His descent into shabbier and shabbier jobs, and shabbier and shabbier living quarters, which takes up most of the novel, is a result of his own pride and foolishness, but his triumph is that he comes to realize that. There's no sting in his eventually settling down to married life with his girlfriend Rosemary and returning to the advertising copywriting job he quit in a pique of artistic purity, no sting precisely because he's not sacrificing any great talent to do it. Orwell wasn't a natural novelist, and in "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" he was working out an idea as surely as he was in his essays. But the idea was a potent one, a refutation of the romantic canard that, as Bob Dylan once sang, "There's no success like failure."

The phrase "a merry war" is how Orwell describes Gordon and Rosemary's ongoing battle over the roles of men and women. It's also the title of the new film version of "Keep the Aspidistra Flying," though director Robert Bierman and screenwriter Alan Plater don't concentrate much on that battle -- or on much of anything else. "A Merry War" is like a student paper that tries to make up in flash what it lacks in insight. He and Plater recognize that "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" is a comedy, but everything has been broadened and, in the process, flattened. The movie is bedeviled by that hobgoblin of literary adaptations and period movies: production values. The comfortable apartment inhabited by Gordon's well-off literary friend Ravelston (Julian Wadham) has become a plushly appointed townhouse, and his mistress an icy upper-class bitch who drips contempt for Gordon. The modest literary circle Gordon hovers around is now rife with fashionable name-dropping. Middle-class people and a middle-class lifestyle seem to exist only in a few of Gordon's nicer rooming houses.

Bierman (who directed the black comedy "Vampire's Kiss") seems to know only how to deal in extremes, but there's something creamy-looking about all the locales: Even the ramshackle tenement and sleazy bookstore Gordon winds up in at his lowest point has been designed to give the most picturesque view of poverty you've ever seen; it's squalor ready for framing. (This section does however feature a very welcome appearance from the wonderful British character actress Liz Smith -- she was Maggie Smith's addled old mother in "A Private Function" -- in the role of Gordon's landlady.)

Richard E. Grant is a marvelous actor who gets leading roles all too rarely, and perhaps that's because his gifts are unclassifiable. At times he seems all pop-eyes and impossibly long limbs, and when he works up a full head of steam, he flies off into his own realm of manic, agitated caricature. That's mostly the mode he's in here, and though there's nothing wrong with his performance, neither the script nor the direction give him the chance to modulate Gordon's maddening fixation on money, or to delineate his bitter and smug certainty that even modest means are beyond him. On some level, Grant has too much gusto in him, too much oddity to get at Gordon's ordinariness. He's best in the final sections, where Gordon comes to his senses, and he can channel that gusto into Gordon's renewed appetite for life.

The best reason to see "A Merry War" is Helena Bonham Carter. In the last year, the storm cloud that seemed to hover perpetually around her face has dissipated. She was astonishing in "The Wings of the Dove" as she juggled three or four conflicting impulses in each scene, and she gives a delightful comic performance in "Portraits Chinois," a lovely ensemble comedy from French filmmaker Martine Dugowson ("Mina Tannenbaum") that, sadly, has yet to find a distributor in this country. Rosemary is the story's voice of common sense, and here Bonham Carter plays the role with a determined persistence that's never nagging. Her performance is the accumulation of charming miniature moments: Rosemary stealing a peek at Gordon as he undresses; the pride with which she stands up to her and Gordon's boss when the man criticizes Gordon for quitting the ad firm (even though she thinks it's a foolish decision); and the way, when she becomes pregnant, she says to Gordon, "You could leave me in the lurch," quickly correcting herself and saying, "leave us in the lurch." Orwell had to make Rosemary the winner of his merry war, not because of any schemes or calculation on her part, but because she stands for the reason that he valued so highly, the reason that keeps intruding on Gordon's bohemian fantasy, showing him that the unvarnished truth he embraces in his new life is really nothing more than the peeling wallpaper and unswept dirt on the floor. If she's the one who leads him finally into a middle-class existence, Bonham Carter makes compromise seem like a pretty good deal.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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