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IN SHORT: A pleasure.
Richard E. Grant is far from a star here, but he continues to act in a string of intelligent, charming and thoroughly enjoyable movies for grownups. In the movies he makes, nothing blows up. Nothing burns brighter than the flame in his eyes in this flick, and those eyes are well matched by the puppy dog looks of co-star Helena Bonham Carter. A Merry War, like Grant's Jack and Sarah before it, will probably vanish from theaters before anyone realizes it's been released, it is, like nostalgia, thoroughly charming and will be remembered fondly by those who take the time to see it.
Gordon Comstock (Grant) is a man who fancies himself a poet and a free spirit. "Misery and degradation are your trademarks" says his publisher Ravelston (Julian Wadham) about the writing, but that pretty much nails Gordon's true nature. A slim volume of his work, called "Mice," is favorably reviewed by the Times Literary Supplement (Erskine wrote the copy) Smelling success, Gordon quits his middle class gig writing advertising copy for toilet water products, hair cream and something called Bovex -- it may be coffee, Cranky isn't sure -- to write full time. Book number two is to be called "London Pleasures," ("but it's really about misery," says Gordon) and features poems about poplar trees and the evil Money God. Gordon's long suffering soul-mate-to-be, Rosemary (Bonham Carter), illustrator of his advertisements, is his rock and his defender against their employer Erskine (Jim Carter), who marvels that anyone would want to buy poetry, when there's already so much poetry in books!
Gordon is happy to work in filthy bookstores at half to quarter pay, reveling in the experience of being non-conforming and dirty, hanging with prostitutes and drinking tea with the neighborly undertaker. Rosemary wants the nice little house and passel of kids, just like middle class women were supposed to back in the 1930s. She is, for the most part, waiting it out. If Rosemary were Catholic, her endurance could earn her a sainthood.
George Orwell's source novel, titled "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" (after a nearly indestructible house plant and symbol of "respectable" people) adapts into a very enjoyable and amusing tale. Merry War would be a "the grass is greener on the other side" story if there were grass in the streets of London. For the upper classes in this story, represented by Ravelston and his ladyfriend Hermoine (Lesley Vickerage), life is a closed club of parties and news passed on "grapevines," of champagne on ice and sex in the afternoon. Middle class working types Gordon and Rosemary haven't even exchanged much more than a kiss, as they have no secluded bower in which to be alone. Once they find one, Gordon's self-absorption and selfishness screw up the screwing. The final important character is Julia (Harriet Walter), the also-long-suffering sister of our Hero, who rakes in the bucks as a waitress at a teahouse and fronts her brother enough cash to survive in the hopes that he'll wake up to middle class realities and do the right thing.
. . . Yes I know the Brits use Pounds Sterling. I'm writing in American . . .
It really is an alien world you'll be watching. As Gordon descends through the class system from middle to lower to working to abject on the street poverty, he revels in it all. Socialist political theory is inbred in the story, though it isn't in your face, and Gordon discovers the key to life, which I won't give away. But he also discovers that life means nothing if it isn't fulfilling, which is the point of marriage and kids and a home. How Gordon is re-enervated and rescues himself from one-bath-a- year poverty is something you'll have to discover for yourself.
There. I've told you a lot of what happens, but not how it happens. Hunt this sucker down and enjoy it. You'll find great acting and a solid story across the board.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to A Merry War, he would have paid . . .
A Merry War is Intelligent and funny and amusing and very much a pleasure. Why it bears the title it does is buried in the prose of the novel. Cranky's personal thought is that the original title should have been retained. It would have at least caught the eye and sparked some attention. If you're into 60s pop music, the closing theme song, "Tiger Burning Bright," is sung by Colin Blunstone of The Zombies. That's called laying the nostalgia on with a trowel.
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