The work of British writer Evelyn Waugh has produced notable television (the classic tv production of Brideshead Revisited) and often turns up in cinema, although his satirical intent is often diminished in favour of broader comedy. Fortunately, this 1998 adaptation manages to extract both the wit and the social commentary from the original text, while still offering a stylish veneer and a lush period look.
Charles Sturridge, who directed the original Brideshead tv show, does a respectful job of converting Waugh’s A Handful of Dust into film, with Tony Last (James Wilby) struggling to come to terms with the outrageous behaviour of his wife Brenda (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her infidelity with John Beaver (Rupert Graves), which threatens to lead to the social ignimony of divorce.
Having nailed this complex relationship, Sturridge also has room for a plethora of high-powered cameos from Judi Dench, Anjelica Huston and notably Alec Guinness, who appears at Mr Todd, the African explorer with a taste for Dickens. Todd, of course, is German for death, and his appearance very much marks the end of the line for the appropriately named Tony Last
The jarring change of scene, from the social ladders of Britain to the depths of Africa, was hard for some to follow, but Sturridge sticks closely to Waugh’s book for better or worse and makes a cinematic mountain out of a molehill of casual infidelity. It’s probably the best adaptation of Waugh until Bright Young Things in 2003, (Fry also appears in this one and clearly gets the author) but both are well worth seeking out for those who grasp the subtle cruelty of what we used to call society.