George Orwell’s sole comic novel, the story of an egocentric, struggling poet in ’30s London, gets a terrific adaptation by scripter Alan Plater and casting that seems effortlessly right in “Keep the Aspidistra Flying.” Pic is a constant, often very funny delight to the ears, and should be welcomed by upscale urban auds attuned to the pleasures of well-turned dialogue. But the movie is held back from realizing its fullest potential by unimaginative direction and a look that owes more to the small screen than the big sheet. Good reviews, however, may give pic — which opens the London Film Festival — the boost to do decent niche business.
Orwell’s novel, which first appeared in 1936 but was not published in the U.S. until 1955, predates his famous political allegories, “Animal Farm” and “1984,” by a decade or more. An ironic look not only at Blighty’s class-conscious society and the economics of publishing, but also at the pretensions of being an “artist,” the book is based on his own experiences on the bread line and working in a bookstore while trying to forge a career as a writer during the late ’20s and early ’30s. Vet playwright-scripter Plater, whose ear for nuanced dialogue stretches back to the ’60s, stays close to the original storyline and characters while giving the dialogue a contempo boldness.
Gordon Comstock (Richard E. Grant) is a star copywriter at an ad agency where his girlfriend, Rosemary (Helena Bonham Carter), is a designer. Gordon feels his artistic side is not being fully utilized by snappy one-liners for hair lotion and health drinks, and promptly resigns (after negotiating a raise) to become “a poet and a free man.” He already has one slim tome published, and is emboldened by a review that he “shows promise.” Others in his circle are not so sure, from the quietly sensible Rosemary, through his long-suffering sister, Julia (Harriet Walter), who waits tables in a tea shop, to his snooty publisher, Ravelston (Julian Wadham). Gordon, however, is not to be stopped, and, to suffer like any artist in the cause of inspiration, lodges in a single-room, suburban apartment while working as an assistant in a bookstore.
The glamour of being a penniless artist starts to wear off when the rejection slips come in. And to add to everything, Gordon’s attempts to have sex with Rosemary don’t get much beyond first base. Not until he gives up his middle-class pretense at poverty, and experiences the real thing in a grungy working-class district away from his supportive friends, does Gordon really grow up and make some genuine life choices.
With its heightened characters — all basically Brit stereotypes of the period — and anarchic sense of humor, the movie is a perfect vehicle for Grant’s customarily manic persona, as he contorts his lanky frame into ever more angular postures and spouts chiseled tirades against the inequalities of the system. (Gordon’s repeated complaint that he’ll never succeed because he hasn’t been to Oxbridge, isn’t “queer” or a paid-up member of the Communist Party, is a good example of scripter Plater catching the essence of Orwell with a slight twist.)
As the independent Rosemary, the diminutive Bonham Carter, underrated as a comedienne, is a perfect foil to the tall, lanky Grant, communicating as much by a look or a few well-chosen words as the latter does in pages of verbal acrobatics. The rest of the cast are similarly positioned at a safe distance from the wall-bouncing Grant, slipping in rapier-like quips that feed off the actor’s energetic perf. Wadham as the publisher Ravelston, Lesley Vickerage as Ravelston’s waspish mistress, Jim Carter as Gordon’s gruff ex-boss and — in a couple of scene-stealing turns — veteran Liz Smith as his landlady are all on the money.
Pic is, however, less satisfying in its mounting. Though James Keast’s costumes and the paraphernalia of the period are detailed, the overall look is more sprayed-on than lived-in, and the direction by Brit Robert Bierman (“Vampire’s Kiss,” plus plenty of commercials and TV) is too often content to sit back and let the words alone take the strain, in British tube style. Mike Batt’s glossy score is a help when it appears.
Title is a pun on the Communist anthem “Keep the Red Flag Flying,” with the aspidistra plant symbolizing comfy, middle-class English respectability.