"We're all socialists, dear, but we don't have to like everybody. Especially when they smell." This line is uttered by a decidedly upper-class woman as


Between a rock and a hard vase

Art? Or a respectable middle-class life?

"We're all socialists, dear, but we don't have to like everybody. Especially when they smell." This line is uttered by a decidedly upper-class woman as she snuggles up to her equally upper-class, but lefty, boyfriend. It's an exchange between two minor characters, but it neatly defines the territory of A Merry War: the place where ideology meets more, um, intimate concerns. This intersection of the political and the personal (or at least personal hygiene) keeps the humor fresh and of the moment, though the film is set in the '30s (it is in fact an adaptation of George Orwell's 1936 satirical novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying). Robert Bierman's chipper direction and the film's glossy, visually astute look help things along as well.

A Merry War

directed by Robert Bierman

starring Richard E. Grant, Helena Bonham Carter

starts Friday at the Harvard Exit

The smelly person in question is Gordon Comstock, a would-be poet. At the opening of the film, he's a successful advertising copywriter, writing ad lines for a beverage called "Bovex" and sniveling, as only Richard E. Grant can snivel, about his wasted talents—on the basis of a tepid review in the Times Literary Supplement of his first slender volume. His pragmatic girlfriend, Rosemary (Helena Bonham Carter), a designer at the ad agency, struggles to keep him earthbound: "You're not Shakespeare and you're not quite William Blake." To which he responds wildly, "How can I be sure?"

It's been said there are only two plots: A stranger comes to town, or the protagonist goes on a journey. In his best films (Withnail & I, How to Get Ahead in Advertising), Richard E. Grant has proved himself to be both the stranger (we never identify with him, we always observe him) and the protagonist on the journey. Here his journey is a wild ride through London's class system, and it begins when he quits his job. A capable copywriter, he proves himself a brilliant quitter, striding from the slick offices of his employer declaring, "I am a poet and a free man!"

He roams the streets of London, muttering lines of verse from what is to be his new collection of poems, London Pleasures. (The title is "ironic," Gordon assures his publisher, who responds wearily, "Of course.") His glee will be recognizable to anyone who's ever quit anything: For a few high moments, he feels like a king, the master of his own destiny. With his hands thrust deep in his pockets and his tie blowing in the breeze, he looks the very image of the poet on his constitutional—and Grant is so adept an actor you can see that Gordon is all too aware of the perfection of his image.

We have a bad feeling about all this. Is it such a swell idea for Gordon to give up everything based on vague promises from magazines named Primrose Quarterly and Californian Review? In Depression-era England, it is indeed a short trip from unemployment to Hell. His publisher finds him a respectable job in a respectable bookshop and a respectable apartment on a respectable street. This is where the aspidistra of Orwell's title (which was also the film's title in its British release—presumably we Yanks couldn't be counted on to handle such an unwieldy word) comes into play. The respectable landlady at Gordon's new apartment puts one in his room. "To the middle classes," says Gordon, "an aspidistra is a symbol of conformity and respectability."

It's not long before Gordon has turned viciously on his plant, burning it with cigarettes and calling it a "verdant bastard." Respectability clearly isn't working out so well. After getting a big fat check from the Californian Review, he drags Rosemary and his publisher to the fanciest restaurant in town, where he indulges so excessively in the delights of the upper classes that he ends up in the drunk tank with no job and no apartment. It's a finely satirical bit of plotting: Gordon, in his desperation to become upper-class, thrusts himself firmly downward into the lower classes.

Which he does with gusto, finding himself a job at a tawdry bookshop and an even tawdrier apartment in a nasty neighborhood—gasp—"south of the river." Necessity being the mother of pretension, he claims to find true happiness among the honest working people. He especially admires the guys who sweep up after the horses and then sell the manure to gardeners: "Nobody has any illusions. They are buying and selling shit."

It comes as no surprise when Gordon finally returns to the fold of the middle class. What is a surprise—and an exquisitely moving one—is the way he returns. He has traveled through a web of personae: artist, egghead, ragamuffin, shit-seller. But the core of the man is revealed when he returns to Rosemary. She's pregnant. Gordon finds himself drawn inexorably back not by some high-minded tenet, but by the pull of fatherhood. The film's final, homely message: The lure of the middle class is often biological, usually intimate, and never ideological.

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