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Bright Young Things (2003)

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 106 minutes

UK Certificate: 15

Picture the 'Inferno' party. There's music, dancing, exotic costumes, cocaine and sex, all bathed in lurid red light. 'Isn't this too dull?', asks Miles. Nina, dancing frantically, replies 'I've never been so bored in all my life'. The perpetual partygoers, effete narcissists and Fleet Street scandalmongers that populate Stephen Fry's 'Bright Young Things' are easily recognisable from any of today's celebrity gossip columns – except that the film is an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's mordant satire 'Vile Bodies', and is set in the late thirties.

Much like 'Withnail and I', 'Bright Young Things' depicts the bottom falling out of a decade of excess. Following the serendipitous Adam Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore), his frigid fiancée Nina (Emily Mortimer), daft Agatha Runcible (Fenella Woolgar), gay Miles (Michael Sheen) and Earl-cum-gossip-columnist Simon Balcairn (James McAvoy) as they scramble endlessly in search of easy money, 'naughty salt' and the next big party, 'Bright Young Things' is about ghastly people doing beastly things with little awareness of the outside world – until, that is, reality cruelly intervenes in the form of rising debts, suicide, madness, the Law and finally the War.

The film's episodic structure is bound together by Adam's twin pursuits of Nina's affections and of a drunken Major (Jim Broadbent) who may just possibly have won Adam a huge sum of money on a horse – and while his fortunes in both these ventures keep vacillating from one extreme to another, his character, just like everyone else's, remains essentially unchanged, so that the film in the end resembles the sort of party-dances it depicts, with their complicated but continually repeating steps. Adam's insider view on all the society high jinks is so blankly uncritical that the film manages to retain a frivolous veneer of whimsy even when events take on a darker edge. Even the later scenes on the battlefield seem not so much to contrast with all the absurdity which has preceded, but rather merely to replay it in a different setting. This consistency of tone allows 'Bright Young Things' to continue seeming a light entertainment even when it touches on the most serious and tragic of matters.

In his directorial debut, Stephen Fry has assembled an extraordinary cast of British and American talent, and elicited appropriately hammy performances from all (although Peter O'Toole, as Nina's father, probably needed little encouragement in this respect). The sets are exquisite, especially Nina's art deco apartment and the imperial-style hotel in which Adam lodges. And while the film suffers from being a bit too long, and there is no development of character, it includes some deliciously funny episodes, and leaves you with the satisfaction of an account that has been very neatly balanced.

It's Got: A chorus of angels singing Jesus is the champ, a former king of Anatolia who has lost his gold fountain pen with eagles on him, a party in an asylum, and the sight of Sir John Mills doing several lines of coke.

It Needs: To be a little shorter


'Bright Young Things' is a riotously entertaining portrait of parasitic, feckless abandon in the late 1930s. A delicious, delirious dance through a time of serious change.