Helena Bonham Carter and Richard E. Grant in Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1997)


(director: Robert Bierman; screenwriters: from a George Orwell novel/Alan Plater; cinematographer: Giles Nuttgens; editor: Bill Wright; cast: Richard E. Grant (Gordon Comstock), Helena Bonham Carter (Rosemary), Julian Wadham (Ravelston), Lesley Vickerage (Hermoine), Jim Carter (Erskine), Liz Smith (Mrs. Meakin), Harriet Walter (Julia Comstock); Runtime: 101; First Independent/Overseas; 1997-UK)

“The uninspired script makes a mockery of Orwell’s intentions to sympathize with an artist who is prepared to make his own way in the world.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Much ado is made about aspidistra in this comedy adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel of George Orwell. It’s a hardy houseplant, used in the story to connote middle-class London respectability when placed on the windowsill of a flat. In the low class Lambeth neighborhood, it is offered to the impoverished bookstore clerk as a sign of affection by his kindly landlady. The plant acts as a metaphor indicating that the confused young hero of the film can’t escape his middle-class destiny, even when he seeks shelter in the slums of Lambeth.

Before the would-be poet Gordon Comstock (Grant) lived in Lambeth, he dwelt in respectable Hampstead Heath. His landlady in his middle-class, immaculate flat, Mrs. Meakin (Liz Smith), represents bourgeois values. When she finds something awry in the world, her nose lifts upward in snooty sarcasm. She reacts to the poet’s one night drinking binge that got in the papers and got him fired from his Hampstead bookstore clerk job, by kicking him out. The aspidistras in her place seem cold and hostile to the troubled young poet, anyway. They show how stuffy and pretentious life is in a suburban neighborhood. So he chooses his next residence in a slum where the people have nothing to lose and are free to speak their mind, and social restrictions are not as tensely kept.

The upper-class are royally seen through the depiction of Ravelston (Wadham), a wealthy publisher, who has the luxury of having sex in the afternoon with his acid-tongued priggish girlfriend (Vickerage) and living a care-free existence in his spacious townhouse. He even considers himself to be a socialist, which is ridiculed by his stodgy mannerisms and snobbish attitude.

There’s a point to be made in this 1930s depression satire about money counting for everything and this point is hammered into every aspect of the story, until it gets to be not only redundant but outright irritating to hear. The would-be poet Gordon who is not satisfied with his success and promotion in an adverting firm, where he is writing advertising slogans, impulsively quits his job when he gets a good review in a London newspaper for one one of his poetry books published by his friend Ravelston. Gordon narcissistic-ally dreams of international fame and entry into the poetry world of W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot. His girlfriend and co-worker, Rosemary (Helena Bonham Carter), who does the graphic art for his slogans and is happy to be a petitioner of middle-class values, which is what her boyfriend tells her he is rejecting. Rosemary’s role in the film is to wait for Gordon to come to his senses and join her willingly in matrimony — which he will do after he experiences the harshness of poverty and tires of roaming the streets composing banal poems, and accepts responsibility for making Rosemary pregnant. His boss is Erskine (Jim Carter) who makes money from Gordon’s wordsmith skills, therefore is disappointed that he quit but he leaves the job open for him if he wishes to return.

The point made is that people delude themselves into thinking that they are the next Shakespeare and spend a miserable time living in poverty or doing what they shouldn’t be doing, when they would be much happier being accepted into the middle-class where they duly belong. It’s a fair enough point made, but the story has this nasty habit of being saccharine to a point where its sugary qualities could be fatal to the viewer’s health. Even the scenes of poverty are sugar-coated, making everything look so awfully nice. The film shows how foolish the young man was in giving up his career work in which he shows an aptitude for and how Gordon foolishly chooses something he was not born to do. It, also, somehow, stretches the point that art and advertisement have much in common, cynically stating there is little difference between how they achieve their ends.

It just became dull watching all the clichés about the classes bantered back and forth, with the picturesque view of Gordon descending into poverty while working in a musty Lambeth bookstore. Gordon then must reluctantly return to middle-class life and back to his former place of work to cheers from his colleagues. He will now be accepted into the warm embraces of his girlfriend, and back in the good graces of his stolid middle-class sister (Harriet Walter).

The message I got as I watched this tepid middle-brow art film is that living in poverty can be stifling, and living that kind of life is not what makes an artist. What the film had to offer was nothing more than seeing a few artists referred to, some inferences that there is a merry war going on between men and women, some mild invectives about class differences, and all of life’s battle were condensed to being about money matters. For a movie railing against accepting bourgeoisie values — it instead becomes a movie that ends up glorifying those values. Its final message is, there is no escape from one’s destiny.

If one looked hard enough, there can be found some wit in Gordon’s portrayal of a likable jerk with artistic ambitions and find some charm in his relationship with Rosemary. But the uninspired script makes a mockery of Orwell’s intentions to sympathize with an artist who is prepared to make his own way in the world. Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London” offers a more interesting take on being poor, as he worked for a time as a dishwasher and in a Hampstead bookstore as a clerk. You’ll get a better feel of what Orwell was trying to satirize reading that book than you will by seeing this film.