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Review: Comically dark verse in 'A Merry War'

Web posted on: Tuesday, September 08, 1998 1:41:00 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Richard E. Grant is an actor who does highly commendable work no matter what role he's cast in (even when he's slumming in twaddle like "Spice World"), but there's one type of character that he absolutely owns -- vile, smart-guy snobs who simply can't be bothered with anything that anybody else has to say. About anything.

Two of his most biting performances are in the hilarious (though erratic) Bruce Robinson comedies "Withnail and I" and "How to Get Ahead in Advertising," both of which rise and fall according to the amount of bile Grant is allowed to spew at that perpetually scheming organization that the rest of us casually refer to as "other people."

Grant is at it again in Robert Bierman's "A Merry War," a comedy/drama based on an early novel by George Orwell. Those of you who've only read the basic Orwell output may be surprised to learn that the story -- focusing on Gordon Comstock, a copy writer in 1930s England who quits his job to try his hand at pretentious poetry -- is more light-hearted than it is grim.

Entire theatrical trailer for "A Merry War:"
5.3Mb QuickTime

File format infoFrom First Look Pictures

Nobody gets a rat strapped to their face (EEEEWWWWW!) this time around, but that's not to say that Gordon doesn't go through an ordeal. Nobody buys poetry, you know, and living in a room where you can't light a fire at night because it draws bugs out of the wallpaper can start to take its toll after a while.

Aspiring poet, artist girlfriend

As the story opens, Gordon and his graphic artist girlfriend, Rosemary (Helena Bonham Carter, who, by now, has been seen in more period costumes than Carrie Nation), are working together at an advertising firm.

The boss loves Gordon's work, but Gordon wants to do more with his talent than concoct forward-looking phrases like "New Hope for the Ruptured." One day he just calls it quits and heads home to work on his second book of poems. The first one, which was published and well-reviewed for the papers by his swanky best friend (appealingly embodied by Julian Wadham) sold over 100 copies. This minor success has encouraged Gordon; he's now ready to take the literary world by storm.

Not so quick, though. Poet or not, you still have to pay the bills, so Gordon goes to work as a clerk in a cramped book shop. He also moves into a less-expensive living arrangement, sharing a room with an aspidistra plant in the house of an old woman who lives near the store. (The movie originally had the same title as Orwell's novel, "Keep the Aspidistra Flying." Evidently, a sane person intervened.)

The aspidistra quickly comes to represent everything Gordon hates about middle-class society. Some of the movie's best moments come when Grant yells at the plant, slaps it around, burns it with cigarettes, and injects it with ink from his poison pen. He thinks about writing a lot (we hear his not-completely-awful poems in voiceover), but he can't stay focused on his work because Rosemary refuses to sleep with him before they're married. Lack of money and decent food are also factors in his dwindling literary output.

Work driving poet bonkers

The middle portion of the film mostly concerns itself with the relationship between Gordon and Rosemary, and her difficult job of maintaining enthusiasm for the work that is slowly driving her boyfriend bonkers.

It's not always clear what the tone of the movie is supposed to be. Some rather innocuous scenes are questionable due to an over-pronounced score that seems to want you to take all of this much more seriously than it really deserves to be taken. The drama end of the comedy/drama equation works best when the two lovers are arguing about their future together.

I never really felt that Grant, no matter how far down the social ladder he managed to slide, was in any real danger of dying on a filthy back street ... even when he starts wallowing in his squalid existence. When he manages to sell a poem to an American magazine for $50, then ends up in the drunk tank after making a fool of himself spending it on Carter and Wadham, I was laughing when I think I was supposed to be grimacing.

Though a lot of the biting one-liners are excellent, the performances are the real reason to see this one. Grant, as I've already said, is fantastic, and Carter is starting to carry herself in a more assuredly comic manner. I've always liked her, but, in light of this film and her Academy Award-nominated turn in "The Wings of the Dove," I think she's swiftly heading towards more richly fulfilling work.

Carter has suddenly turned into a woman, and, in somewhat ambitious movies, spunky women carry a lot more weight than spunky girls. You wouldn't have bought her standing up for Grant's selfishness just a couple of years ago, but now her stamina redeems a movie that could have ended poorly. I'm not really sure which war the title is referring to, but Gordon and Rosemary certainly stand victorious when it's all over.

"A Merry War" contains some bad language, and a truncated, fully clothed sex scene. It manages to be bubbly and mean-spirited at the same time. I think this is one of the keys to modern survival. Rated PG-13. 90 minutes.

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