`Dust' blends hilarity, heartbreak. Waugh novel loses some punch on screen

The recent movie called ``A Handful of Dust'' is very much in the vein of ``Masterpiece Theatre'' on television. It was directed by Charles Sturridge, a key creator of the well-received ``Brideshead Revisited,'' and, like that series, it's based on an Evelyn Waugh novel. It also has a competent cast, including James Wilby, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Anjelica Huston. Yet the picture must be called a major disappointment, especially by comparison with the excellent book it's based on. The hero, Tony Last, is a British gentleman with all the trappings of his position, including a home that has not only an address but a name: It's called Hetton, and it's so important to the story that it's almost a character in its own right. Tony lives there with his wife, Brenda, who's not nearly as content as he is. In fact, she's bored with married life - so much that one day, without really thinking about it, she slides into a love affair with a ridiculous young friend named John Beaver.

Brenda keeps her affair a secret from Tony by pretending to take a college course - in economics, of all things - with lots of classes and lectures to attend. Tony eventually figures out the situation, and goes through the motions of getting a divorce. This is one of the novel's most amusing scenes, as Tony cooks up evidence of his own infidelity to give the divorce court.

Tony wouldn't know how to be unfaithful if he tried, so he has to settle for a dismal weekend at the beach with a hired female companion and her bratty little daughter. After a couple of surprising 90-degree turns, the story then plunks Tony into a South American expedition, bringing his adventures to an exotic and wildly ironic finish.

Waugh's novel is one of those rare tales that manage to be both heartbreaking and hilarious. You can't help feeling sorry for poor Tony, especially when people start blaming him for the miseries Brenda and Beaver have inflicted on him. The story also includes a strongly dramatic episode, involving the young son of Tony and Brenda, which is the stark opposite of comical. Yet you can't help laughing over most of the characters most of the time - they're so utterly blind to the realities of life and the failings in their own personalities.

I'm sorry to report that the film isn't in the same league as its source. The stars all look and sound right for their parts, but there's no energy - either humorous or dramatic - in their performances. The movie around them just lies there on the screen, too, never capturing the mood of biting social sarcasm that Waugh's book has on almost every page; it's as if director Sturridge were so determined to maintain a dignified atmosphere that he doesn't want to disturb it with high comedy, high emotion, or high anything. The film begins to come alive when Alec Guinness arrives, as a weird old man Tony meets during his South American trek. But it's far too late by this point. Things are already winding to a close, and the time to generate excitement is long gone.

Not every first-rate novel makes a first-rate motion picture, and ``A Handful of Dust'' proves this principle soundly. There are times when even staunch movie fans are best advised to stay at home and read a book. This is certainly one of them.

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