I recently wrote about how I found the final novel of Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour to be somewhat unsatisfying. Viewing the movie from 2001, which attempts to be faithful to the scope and tone of the books, I conclude that it does an adequate if not inspired job. And I further realized that the books, for all their comic relish, moments of profundity, and ruminations on war, humanity, and life's meaning, are meant to be absorbed slowly. The moments of deep profundity, such as Guy Crouchback's homage at the tomb of the English crusader and his conversations with his father about the Divine Will, simply don't translate well in the course of the film.
It is, perhaps, the best job that could be done within such time constraints. The tension inherent in Waugh's tale makes for a very complex basis for the story, and the story's emotions are not as transparent as the medium of film generally demands. On a more mundane film critic basis, there are some specific elements of the film version that simply do not work. One major problem is the casting. Daniel Craig simply lacks the aristocratic mien to play an aristocratic Catholic scion like Guy. Craig's brawny capability, so fine as James Bond, translates poorly to Waugh's protagonist. The actress playing Virginia is simply wrong - more modern "Desperate Housewives" than WWII femme fatale. There are some outstanding character actors, mainly those playing Guy's comrades. The precious, though tragic and doomed, officer Apthorpe. The possibly insane Brigadier Ritchie-Hook. And, of course, the brilliant comic actor Robert Daws (who played the insufferable windbag Hildebrand 'Tuppy' Glossop in Jeeves and Wooster) as the cowardly and duplicitous Major Hound.
For a Waugh devotee, or anyone who has read the novels, there are moments of great pleasure, occasional echoes of the genius of Waugh, sides of good acting, grandeur, or poignancy. Unfortunately, for those unfamiliar with the books it might well present as a long, boring, meaningless catalogue of trivial acts and spoiled characters - which is a tragedy, for Waugh's achievement with the Sword of Honour is anything but.
Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils