Gordon Comstock is an aspiring poet and a successful advertising copywriter in 1930s London. He is good at his job and earns a decent middle-class income, but is dissatisfied with what he sees as a materialistic lifestyle and quits the firm to concentrate on writing poetry. He finds, however, that he cannot make a living from poetry alone, is forced to take a much less well-paid job working in a bookshop and spirals down into poverty. About the only thing which saves him from complete destitution is his ability to exploit the generosity of his wealthy publisher Ravelston, of his long-suffering girlfriend Rosemary and of his equally long-suffering sister Julia. And then something happens to shock Comstock out of his nostalgie de la boue.
The film was based on George Orwell's novel of the same name. Orwell's title, playing on the Labour Party anthem "The Red Flag" with its promise to "keep the red flag flying here", refers to the aspidistra, a type of house-plant popular in the late nineteenth century which by the 1930s had become associated with a sort of shabby-genteel lower-middle-class respectability. (Orwell's contemporary H E Bates was to use the symbol of the aspidistra in the same way in his "An Aspidistra in Babylon"). For some reason the film was released in the United States under the meaningless title "A Merry War" which may have misled some viewers into thinking it was a wartime movie. (It isn't; Orwell's book was written before war broke out). About the only "war" involved is Comstock metaphorical war against middle-class values and the worship of the "money-god", and there is little that is merry about this particular conflict.
When I first saw "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" in the cinema in 1997, I enjoyed it a lot more than I did when I watched it again recently. The reason is, almost entirely, that I have now read Orwell's book, something I had not done so in 1997. I can therefore understand some of the criticisms which were made of it at the time. Orwell's social satire is more trenchant than anything which appears in this film, and his depictions of poverty more unsparing than the prettified, sentimentalised version of working-class life which we see here. Orwell's Comstock (who may have been partly a self-portrait) certainly has his perverse, self-destructive side, but we also feel the sincerity, and at least to some extent the justice, of his criticism of middle-class society and its money-worship. In the film, Comstock's protests against materialism never seem anything more than perverse, self-indulgent and quixotic.
It is a pity that the film was not closer in spirit to Orwell's novel, because Richard E. Grant would in many ways have been an ideal choice to play Gordon Comstock as Orwell envisaged him. Indeed, he is not bad in the film which we actually have, but could have been far better in a better film. Other good contributions come from Helena Bonham Carter as Rosemary, sweet and pretty without being too sexy, and from Julian Wadham as Ravelston, a wealthy champagne socialist who tries to assuage his guilty conscience about his wealth by fretting about the plight of the unemployed in Middlesbrough, even though he is not sure where Middlesbrough actually is. (In the novel Ravelston had the first name Philip; here for some reason it is changed to Conrad). Ravelston's girlfriend Hermione also claims to be a socialist, although in her case that claim is somewhat weakened by her insistence that "poor people smell". There are also good cameos from John Clegg as the eccentric Scottish bookshop-owner McKechnie and Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Comstock's landlady Mrs. Wisbeach, the aspidistra-wielding incarnation of everything he dislikes most about the middle classes. Overall, in fact, the film is not a bad one. I just felt it represents a missed opportunity. 7/10
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