A Merry War
(1997, directed by Robert Bierman,
A-pix Entertainment)

Gordon Comstock is a promising Depression-era poet who won't be happy until he's downright miserable.

To that end, Comstock (Richard E. Grant) quits his lucrative but spiritually unrewarding job as an ad-agency copywriter -- much to the dismay of his fiance/coworker, Rosemary (Helena Bonham Carter), and best friend Ravelston (Julian Wadham) -- to work for a few shillings a week in a poverty-row bookstore in a neighborhood so down and out that Charles Dickens wouldn't have written about it.

What results is A Merry War between Comstock and his more well adjusted family and friends, most of whom he owes, in Depression terms, a good bit of money.

A Merry War is based on George Orwell's novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, but it has little in common with Orwell's better-known works, 1984 and Animal Farm.

There's political satire, to be sure: Ravelston, whom Comstock addresses as "Comrade Ravelston," is a wealthy socialist who devotes his life to improving conditions for the working class, provided he doesn't have to see the conditions of the working class. There's no shortage of social satire either: Comstock's stock in trade is designing catch phrases that sell laxatives.

But he prefers to spend his time and creative juices reworking famous phrases from English poetry: "The paths of glory lead but to the engravers," he intones in one early sequence.

Orwell even offers a few digs at his fellow writers, as Comstock struggles through one bad line after another in his vain attempts to write an epic poem about a London that seems to have little going for it besides poplar trees.

A Merry War is a beautifully photographed film that makes the most of its London locales and takes in a bit of the surrounding countryside. And if your game is playing "Catch the Poet," this film will keep you busy for hours.

But ultimately it becomes a difficult watch because it's built on one particularly grating personality. Comstock goes from being whiny and self-centered to being preachy and self-centered, but he never becomes sympathetic. That role is left to Rosemary, who plays it extremely well, thus further frustrating the audience by devoting her considerable life and love to an unsympathetic character.

Even the mighty aspidistra eventually lets us down. Orwell wants the leafy house plant to be a symbol of middle-class respectability, but when Comstock becomes preachy about the plant, too, it becomes simply one more irksome element, no more worthy of our concern than Comstock or the fate of 20th-century poetry.

To be sure, there's more wit than you'll find in a whole season full of summer movies, but ultimately the wit becomes self-serving and unsatisfying.

Only a few of Orwell's dozens of novels, stories and articles have ever reached the screen. A Merry War is not likely to cause a stampede in that direction. Some critics found it charming. I was kind of sorry I found it at all.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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