Don’t be misled by the pretty frocks, the English tearoom rituals, and the presence of corset-drama royalty Helena Bonham Carter in A Merry War, director Robert Bierman’s engrossing adaptation of George Orwell’s 1936 novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Those period details mask a dissection of class struggle as pointed as in any Mike Leigh movie and as contemporarily effective as a Ronald Searle political cartoon.
Bonham Carter’s Rosemary isn’t the struggling one: She’s a graphic designer at an advertising agency in 1930s London, an intelligent, emancipated woman with a clear head (this being the Depression, she knows she’s lucky to have a job) and an exceptionally tolerant love for her high-strung beau, Gordon Comstock (Richard E. Grant). Comstock’s a copywriter in the same prosaic agency by day, but by night he’s a poet who, emboldened by one good review (”shows exceptional promise”), quits his job to pamper his muse. Unfortunately, she ain’t all he cracks her up to be. And so, while ”the poet Comstock” (as he styles himself) counts his dwindling shillings, he rails against the excesses of the upper classes (personified by his publisher, who can bed a beautiful woman in the afternoon and grab the best restaurant table that evening) and the stuffy pieties of the middle class (personified by the aspidistra plant in the windows of so many bourgeois homes). Reduced to rank poverty by the inequities of the System, Comstock moves to a squalid room, claiming to find among the lower classes a kind of personal freedom. ”They’ve got nothing to lose, so they always speak the truth,” he swears hysterically to his patient girlfriend, who quietly sticks to her unstuffy, unpious self-supporting, middle-class ways.
Becoming ever more haggard as he enacts his own version of Sullivan’s Travels, Comstock could easily have become an obvious jerk or a hectoring prophet; he could also, I suppose, have gone even darker and more bitter (Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm, was a chap who loved the dark). But Grant (The Player, Withnail & I) cannily draws the weird hilarity from Comstock’s self-imposed descent, and Bierman (Vampire’s Kiss) directs Grant’s intensity expertly: He contrasts that fire with Bonham Carter’s appealing unpretentiousness, and he plays the couple — the kind of talkers you’d love to have over for a lively dinner — against a production picturesque enough to be an old-style for-the-masses escapist movie. Still, Orwell knew: There’s no escape from the Money God. A-