We all know that George Orwell was a very political writer. One of his earlier efforts, "Keep the Aspidistra Flying," happened to mock the Communist slogan "Keep the Red Flag Flying." (Back in his youth, Orwell was torn between leftist and right-wing views.) At any rate, aspidistras were house plants used in British society to represent the comfortable conformity and existence of middle-class families. The plant becomes a symbol of what the main character (thinks he) hates, but, of course, he comes to terms with the plant by the end of the story.
In Britain, Orwell's title was kept for the theatrical release, but the title was changed for its distribution in America. The expression "A Merry War" comes from the book, at least, keeping purists at bay when it comes to preserving a novel's original title. I don't think that the title was the only thing made more palatable for the film version, however. The last shot of the film is one of a row of perfectly bourgeois houses sitting in a row. This is the film's most ironic moment, of course, but the rest of the film isn't as sharp in its observations about British society and the class system as the book probably was.
The film stars Richard E. Grant as Gordon Comstock, a brilliant writer of tag lines at an advertising agency. (Grant actually bears the physical traits of the real George Orwell, perhaps the filmmakers way of nodding towards the fact that the novel works as much as an autobiography for Orwell as it works as social commentary.) Anyway, Gordon quits his job at the beginning of the film in order to devote his time to writing poetry. Aghast, his boss Erskine tries to dissuade Gordon of the idea.
When Gordon quits, he immediately becomes penniless. His publisher, Ravelston (Julian Wadham, Madox in "The English Patient") manages to find jobs for Gordon once in a while. Poor Gordon, his attempts at succeeding in the literary world culminate in his collection of poetry being sold off cheap at three pence.
Gordon's friends try to help him all the time, but he rebels against their attempts to have him succeed on "bourgeois, middle-class" terms. Rosemary (Helena Bonham Carter) loves him against improbable odds. Erskine keeps on offering him a raise if he would only return to writing tag lines. Even the socialist, fabulously wealthy Ravelston tries to lift Gordon out of the mess that he's made for himself. However, it will take something drastic to snap Gordon to his senses and to take responsibility for not just himself, but other others as well.
"A Merry War" wasn't quite my cup of tea--for one thing, the middle section of the film dragged on for too long. Still, I admired and enjoyed the quality of the production design, the energy of the performances, and the obvious delight of the filmmakers with the material. Perhaps this sort of thing hits closer to home for the Brits than for Americans?
DVD International released "A Merry War" back in 1999, so I won't harp on the lack of anamorphic enhancement of the 1.85:1 frame. However, the print seems a tad dark at times, and it looks on the soft side as well. Edge enhancement doesn't seem to be a problem, but the picture occasionally shimmers. I may excuse this older release for not being anamorphicized, but I can't excuse it for looking rather average in comparison to the awesome transfers available these days.
The audio fares better than the video. Despite being limited to Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo surround (proudly described in the disc's booklet as the "sound mix as created for its original theatrical presentation"), the soundtrack for "A Merry War" features a delightful smattering of directionality effects and subtle atmospheric tones. During a walk through a forest, you can hear just a touch of chirping birds and rustling leaves in the background and surrounds. Sometimes, you get surprises when least expected.
This was an early DVD effort from a small(er) production house, but the content still beats out some of the lesser discs still being churned out by the big studios. The substance offered by the disc resides in the audio options.
There is an informative audio commentary with director Robert Bierman and writer Alan Pater. The two have long been attached to the Orwell novel, so they lovingly go over the details of the production. Their comments do degenerate into the "play-by-play" approach (merely reciting what's happening on screen), but some of their comments really shed light on their dedication to bringing this story to the big screen.
Next up is the "audio interview" with composer Mike Batt. This interview plays over the first two chapters of the film. Mr. Batt comments on the productive relationship he had with the filmmakers and how delightful it was to work on the project. While his remarks seem to be a bit self-congratulatory, nevertheless, he shows the same pride in his work as the director and writer do. When Batt's done speaking, the track reverts to playing the isolated music score. You can also choose to play the isolated score right off the bat, opting out of listening to the composer talk during the first couple of minutes of the film.
A US and a UK trailer for the film, five trailers for other DVD International fare, text pages about George Orwell, and cast and crew notes round out the disc.
The DVD release of "A Merry War" has been made with obvious love and care as indicated by the informative liner notes (it even tells you when and where the audio commentary was recorded!). However, the movie is based on one of George Orwell's lesser (known) works, and the humor depends in large part on a familiarity with British culture. Therefore, if you're a fan of the film, you'll love this DVD. If this is not your cup of tea, it's worth at least a rental.