The movie Scoop doesn’t care much about its people. Its hero’s a hapless shmagoo named William Boot (Michael Maloney) who seems to have that name so that other people can say it angrily or mockingly, emphasizing the “t.” Boot works as a nature writer for The Daily Beast, the bitter enemy of its rival paper, The Daily Brute. Boot thinks he’s been called into his editor’s office because of his piece on the great crested greeb, but learns that he’s actually being sent to the land of Ishmaelia to serve as a correspondent on the upcoming war. “Who is fighting whom in Ishmaelia?” Boot asks apologetically, to which the boss (Donald Pleasence, giving one of the most gorgeously fruity performances by a British actor since Ernest Thesiger kept saying, “Have a potato,” in The Old Dark House) replies, “The patriots versus the traitors.” “Which is which?” says Boot. “Ah,” Pleasence offers, “that is policy,” then adds that the Beast will be supporting the patriots and “We shall expect the first victory around July.”
Evelyn Waugh, the British novelist and satirist who annulled a marriage and converted to Catholicism in the 1930s, pulled strings in middle age to snare a WWII commission, and spent the rest of his life lampooning bloody England, made Ishmaelia a show version of Ethiopia, which had been conquered by Mussolini’s fascists two years prior, to England’s tacit approval (this was also the time of William Randolph Hearst and of the Spanish Civil War; as George Orwell argued in 1938’s Homage to Catalonia, the smoke of yellow journalism was clogging up the world’s air). The movie lets us know that we’re somewhere in Africa by the fat black woman in a colorful dress who meets Boot upon his arrival. The film is equally obvious in its humor, much of which seems to rest on repetitions of funny place names like Côte d’Azur and Reykjavík, but includes other kinds of gags. When Boot buckles to his assignment, he does so in front of a “Condensed Milk” sign; he greets other journalists in Ishmaelia with a brass band playing “I Got Rhythm” behind them. While some movies tell jokes, this film summarizes them, then nudges you and asks, “Wasn’t that funny?”
More jokes come with Kätchen (Renee Soutendjik), Boot’s love-object, a bored fraulein with a missing husband. He shows her his collapsible canoe (hubba hubba); she makes him play ping-pong; as time passes the eternal tease notes, “My husband must not be a very good husband to be away for so long.” It almost goes without saying that the lovely white woman will teach the stifled white man about himself (the natives serving as pleasing painted backdrop) and that his subsequent moral awakening will have more to do with her than with any political injustices. Boot doesn’t do a lot of reporting; as Maloney plays him, he seems to put all his effort into keeping his jaw slack. While the early Beast office scenes were played for broad satire, this long middle section strives for drama/pathos. Yet rather than wrestle with the consequences of the fights he sees happening around him, the film switches moods again as Boot returns to England. The unresolved material ends with him summarizing the plot, wistful musical flashbacks accompanying (think the close of Annie Hall). The artifice of closure keeps perfectly with the film’s overall milquetoast veneer. Airing on the BBC toward the end of the law-and-order Thatcher era, the 1987 film lukewarmly nudges Britain’s myth of empire without seriously challenging it.
A Handful of Dust, released theatrically the following year, does, though not without problems. It has much in common with the film version of Scoop. Both movies depict a white man trying to find himself in a distant land, though in Dust the man gets lost there. Both films make this man a putz, oblivious to what’s actually happening around him, but in Dust the consequences of his ignorance prove much more serious. Both films are handicapped by a serious lack of speed, their sluggish pacing and cutting keeping us jellied with the central idiot. And both movies place good actors everywhere but in the leads. Scoop sticks Donald Pleasence, Denholm Elliott, and Herbert Lom under Maloney; Dust goes above and beyond that, supporting James Wilby with Stephen Fry, Rupert Graves, Judi Dench, Anjelica Huston (miscast), Kristin Scott Thomas in her first meaty role, and Alec Guinness in one of his last.
Thomas plays an adulterous wife, whose cheating heart eventually drives her hubby to the Amazon. The movie depends on our falling for her like her husband has, and she pulls it off. She doesn’t move the parts below her neck much, but her eyes and head shift an enormous amount; one particularly amazing shot shows her eyes watching a dancing crowd as though she can’t wait to be part of it, the orbs gleaming and open with a surfeit transcending greed. Few actresses can convey pleasure as believably. That said, she can generally only play one emotional state per scene, which is fine when she’s gulling her husband with happiness. It’s less so after the mid-film revelation, the hurried death by horse of the couple’s just-introduced child that drives the marriage into nullity. The sullen selfishness Thomas takes on erases the prior delight, and it would have been a much richer performance had she held on to both.
As sweet, compliant Tony (the end of a line of British upper-classers, allegorically named Last) tries to fake an adultery of his own to please his wife’s divorce request, a tonal uncertainty that’s been underlying the movie suddenly jumps up. The film rests in a squishy place between fast and slow, aiming for seriousness without gravitas. I would have preferred if it moved at a screwball comedy pace to explode the hoary melodramatic conventions; the other successful option would have been to retard them, exaggerate them, and stretch them until they break. The best filmmaker to ever pull this second approach off was Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and indeed the film I thought of most during Dust was The Stationmaster’s Wife, the tale of a pale, fleshy dupe out to please his cheating wife because he loves her, but too busy stuck tripping over his own tears. Fassbinder works (like his descendent Lars von Trier, though with far more consistency) because of the dare he sets up: How far can he distance viewers from the material, and still compel their emotions? In a movie like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, the extra effort it takes me to access the heroes’ problems makes me love the people even more once I reach them. By contrast, much of Dust seems to sue for my sympathy.
The film’s last section doesn’t though. Waugh added the South America portion of the book as a late finale, rewriting a previous short story to fit the new book. The shift feels jarring in the movie as well, though that’s all right, since it’s better than most of what we’ve seen earlier. In the jungle, Tony meets a fat, mottled old man (Guinness) who says of the natives, “They would do nothing without my authority. They regard themselves—quite rightly, in many cases—as my children.” A parent-child relationship of sorts springs up between the two men as well, but with roles flipped: Guinness insists that Tony read Dickens to him daily, though softly, softly. The actor relies on the wise-old-man-speaking-slowly effect he honed during the latter part of his career, but the result differs sharply from the fortune cookie line-readings of his Hindu priest in 1984’s A Passage to India; Guinness comes across as what one reviewer calls “frighteningly blank.”
The gap between the serene authority with which he speaks and the insanity of his words makes me think of what Kurtz might have been had Brando been lobotomized. It’s the opposite of Thomas’s cheerful masquerading, but the result is the same: In fleeing from one kind of entrapment, Tony winds up in another. At the time he wrote Dust, Waugh had ended his own marriage and was traveling the world, like Tony. But the path his version of Britain takes through the world is one of absent-minded despotism, destroying itself as a result. This take on colonialism is not only more realistic to me than Scoop’s, it’s more human (though again, we’re in a film where the natives are window dressing, not characters). The director, Charles Sturridge, had adapted Waugh before, directing 1981’s Brideshead Revisited miniseries. His work here is intriguing enough to make me want to seek more Waugh out.
The visual transfers for both films are awful, faded, with what looks like a dirty sheen over the camera lens. In Scoop, the image is either too dark or too bright; in Dust, the print is often bleached-out and scratched. The sound is much better for Scoop than it is for Dust, whose dialogue can be indistinct unless the volume's turned up.
Cast filmographies and a helpful, short, and clickable Waugh biography.
Two adaptations of works by a masterful author, one pretty solid and one far below masterful.