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Sunday, September 5, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movies

Charismatic Brit carries on for Wilde, Waugh

Seattle Times movie critic

Stephen Fry, in Seattle to present his film "Bright Young Things" at the Seattle International Film Festival last June, is jet-lagged, suffering from seasonal allergies and dying for a cigarette.

Yet, none of this matters when the British actor/writer/director talks about his work. He's the very picture of gracious intelligence and charm, speaking in beautifully crafted sentences and creating, in an anonymous hotel conference room, an atmosphere of warmth and comradeship — something generally unheard-of in a press interview.

When he speaks of Oscar Wilde, whom he so memorably played in the 1998 film "Wilde" (and whom the tall, sturdy and nattily dressed Fry greatly resembles), the words might apply just as well to himself. "[Wilde] was grave and serious, but not in a pompous way. When he talked to you, he looked into your eyes and you were the only person alive for him. ... There are brilliant people who can make you feel small, but he had a way, like Shakespeare says of Falstaff, [of being] not just a wit, but the cause of wit in others. He changed the colors of things for people, before their very eyes."

The London native, at 47, has an impressive résumé as an actor in film (recently "Le Divorce" and "Gosford Park") and television ("Blackadder," "Jeeves & Wooster"), and as a writer of novels ("The Liar," "Revenge"), autobiography ("Moab Is My Washpot") and numerous British television comedy series and sketches.

But "Bright Young Things," which opens in Seattle Friday at the Egyptian, is something new for him: It's his first full-length screenplay and his first time as a director. (Not his last, though — he's at work on a new original screenplay, which he plans to direct in early 2005.)

Based on Evelyn Waugh's novel "Vile Bodies," "Bright Young Things" is the story of a group of fashionable, self-destructive London socialites in the '30s. Fry specifically wanted little-known actors in the lead roles, casting Stephen Campbell Moore, Emily Mortimer and Fenella Woolgar as the "bright young things" of the title. By contrast, his supporting cast sparkles with big names: Peter O'Toole, Jim Broadbent, Stockard Channing, Dan Aykroyd. Watch closely and you'll even see Fry himself, in the small role of a chauffeur.

Fry hadn't originally planned to direct the film. "I had begun adapting, just as a writing gig, you might say," remembered Fry (whose plummy-voiced pronunciation of the word "gig" is an indescribable pleasure). "Somehow I got into a position where the people for whom I'd written it said, 'Well, why don't you direct it?' " A bit flummoxed by the suggestion, Fry went back and looked at the script anew. "I thought, 'oh, this is dreadful, this is absurd. How could I expect anyone to understand this?' You suddenly look at it with a director's eye, you realize the tricks that writers use to cover up structural deficiencies."

So Fry launched into a major rewrite. Waugh's novel is an unusually challenging one for a screenwriter: It was written in 1928 but set in Waugh's vision of the future, a few years hence, which includes a disastrous world war. But what the author couldn't have foreseen, Fry explained, was that the Jazz Age, at its peak in 1928, came to a halt with Wall Street's crash and the subsequent Depression. Though Waugh had envisioned the '30s as a carefree continuation of '20s gaiety, until it was interrupted mid-decade by war, the reality was far different.

"I can hardly make a film in which I posited that a world war in 1933 ended all wars; we just know it didn't happen," said Fry. "I could move the whole action up to 1938, and have the kind of unity of action it has in 'Vile Bodies,' [going] from 1938 to the beginning of the war in 1939. But then I would lose this Jazz Age spirit so essential to it. So I had to collapse the whole decade, compress it, so by some weird magic trick go from the late '20s Jazz Age to the opening of the Second World War."

"That's what Hitchcock called an icebox moment. He would say, 'Only when the audience has gone home, and they're having their milk and their cookies, and they take their milk out of the fridge, and they go — hang on, that didn't make sense.' " Fry cackles, then does a spot-on Hitch impression. "It's too late; you awwll-ready have them."

In his adaptation, Fry crafted an ending very different from Waugh's — based on what the author couldn't have known when he wrote the novel. "What Waugh was saying in his satire, which was actually science fiction as it was set in the future, is that [society] is going nowhere, they're all going to hell, playing around and partying while Europe is about to go up in flames.

"But we know what did happen. That very generation, those party people, partly because they were purged and made more serious by the Wall Street crash and the Depression, they pulled up their slacks, and they got on with it, and they beat Hitler and they came out on the other side. They survived, and they built a new world, which for all its faults is the one we are the inheritors of.

"So I felt it was kind of my duty to show what we knew, what Waugh couldn't have known, that there was some hope, a little glimmer of something. The world [the characters] will have will never be as glamorous and funny and charming, but they'll be alive. And there's love, which will see them through."

Would Waugh, to whom Fry affectionately refers as "a cold-hearted bastard, in many ways," have approved of the newly hopeful ending? Perhaps not, but Fry offers no apologies. "I am afraid," he says with a smile, "that I am of a much more benevolent turn of mind." Indeed.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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