Published September 1, 1998
A Merry War is the American title given to the adaptation by Robert Bierman (director) and Alan Plater (writer) of George Orwell’s sunniest novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying— presumably because Americans don’t know what an aspidistra is. For the record, it is a houseplant with long, leathery swordlike leaves which, in the 1930s was a kind of emblem of middle class respectability, sitting in the window of the parlor in nearly every house in some bourgeois neighborhoods. Gordon Comstock (Richard E. Grant) is a would-be poet who loathes money and middle-class respectability and aspidistras equally. Quitting his job as a talented copywriter with the New Albion advertising agency, he decides to try to make his living only from his poetry.
Orwell, it should be said, didn’t write him as such a fool as here he appears to be. The American title, taken from Orwell’s own quotation of Shakespeare’s description of the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, points to the film’s emphasis on Comstock’s romance with the sensible Rosemary (Helena Bonham Carter), his colleague at New Albion. But there is not really very much of the witty repartee of Shakespeare’s lovers in the novel and there is less in the movie, which would have done better and made its hero more sympathetic if it had treated seriously his unsuccessful rebellion against “the money God” in the novel. The movie never takes this theme seriously. It is in fact rather a joke, Comstock’s attempt to live in poverty. He is never more than slumming as it appears here.
There are two unfortunate consequences. One is that Orwell’s great skill, in making us touch and taste the very texture of poverty, is lost utterly; poverty as Bierman and Plater present it is hardly even uncomfortable. The other is that we never really understand what Comstock is doing or why he is doing it in throwing up his job and his prospects for the sake of his poetry. He seems only a great spoiled baby, unable to imagine even that the world does not owe him a living, let alone anything seriously poetic. Moreover, his coming to his senses when Rosemary announces she is pregnant is sudden and unexplained, fitting with nothing that we have known of the man.
It’s a shame because there are good things in the picture. Jim Carter is excellent as Erskine, the head of New Albion, who is genuinely baffled by Comstock’s decision to leave. “Isn’t there enough poetry in the world?” he asks. Besides, what is the difference, really, between poetry and advertising. “It’s all the same—words.” Gordon tries to make him see that a slogan like “New hope for the ruptured,” is a contemptible use of his poetic talents and of no value as sentiment. “For you, maybe,” mutters the genuinely baffled Erskine. “But spare a thought for the ruptured.” Other minor parts and a lot of the 1930s background are very stylishly done.
But the film depends on, yet makes no effort to convey, some understanding of dead political issues and the archaic language of class war which was so popular in Britain, especially among the upper classes, entre deux guerres. All this talk about the horrors of middle class respectability now sounds as unfamiliar to us of the post-sixties “middle class” as the language of honor, or belief in hell. Politics, which was a life and death matter at the time, scarcely exists here. We know so little of the past that when Comstock bitterly curses his fate it is not with Orwell’s parody of 1 Corinthians 13 but rather: “Love, tenderness and money, but the greatest of these is money.” Presumably the filmmakers thought we wouldn’t even “get” so obvious a biblical allusion.
Richard E. Grant, who has been typecast in the past as a clown, a fool, and a wimp, seems unable to play the part of Comstock as anything but another buffoon. Though he ought to be a comic figure, Comstock is not that. The trick of the novel is to make us like him even though we know that the seriousness with which he takes himself and his poetry of “misery and degradation” is ridiculous. Grant never quite manages to make us like him. When the splendid Hermione (Lesley Vickerage), the mistress of Ravelson (Julian Wadham), Comstock’s long suffering editor at Antichrist (for some reason the title of the journal is not mentioned here), describes him as “a little turd,” she is doing no more than telling the truth. And she neither she nor Miss Bonham-Carter’s Rosemary is on camera long enough to generate much interest of their own.