(Sony Classics) Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth, Kimberley Nixon, Katherine Parkinson, Kris Marshall, Christian Brassington, Charlotte Riley, Jim McManus, Pip Torrens. Directed by Stephan Elliott
Part of the way we are brought up is to keep our problems and tragedies hidden. Therefore, even the lives that seem most perfect on the surface have some kind of ugliness hiding just below the façade.
John “Panda” Whittaker (Barnes), scion of a wealthy English family, is attending the 1924 Grand Prix at Monte Carlo where he witnesses the triumph of a beautiful blonde American, winning the race. He falls instantly in love and impulsively marries her. The hard part comes next; he has to bring Larita (Biel), his new bride, back to meet his family.
Like many wealthy English families, eccentricity runs through the family like rain through the gutters. Father (Firth) is a veteran of the Great War and who hasn’t been the same since he returned home, taking a slight detour through Europe to do so. Sister Hilda (Nixon) is a busybody who dwells on morbid news clippings and has a vindictive streak a mile wide. Sister Marion (Parkinson) is searching for a husband with a desperation that borders on hysteria and has her eye on Phillip Hurst (Brassington), the son of Lord Hurst (Torrens). Phillip, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with her. Finally, there’s Mother (Thomas), an icy woman with a sharp tongue and a heart of solid steel. She runs the family with an iron hand and even Father steps aside for her when she’s in one of her moods.
Larita couldn’t have come at a worse time. They are entering a busy social season, and the family estate is crumbling into disrepair. There is an odd disconnect with John’s father, which is becoming more and more pronounced. And she’s running into Mother at her most venomous.
Things aren’t going well but it’s not for Larita’s lack of trying. At first she tries to be friendly and respectful but Mother’s sharp barbs put an end to that. Eventually it settles into a bitter cold war with the two daughters taking Mother’s side and Father, who has a great admiration for all things American, on Larita’s. When her past threatens to catch up with her, the staid life of the manor threatens to explode.
This is based on a 1924 Noel Coward play. It has been made into a movie at least once, by none other than Alfred Hitchcock(!) back in 1928. This time, the director is Elliott, best known for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. This is his first feature in nine years and he is aided by the auspices of Ealing Studios in England, one of the most famous in all the UK. They are well-known for their drawing room comedies of the sort that Coward excelled at, and this is right down their alley.
Of course, this isn’t the play that Coward wrote. Writers Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins have taken some liberties with the original material – Elliott himself admits on the commentary track that the script is about “30% Coward” – and it seemed to me that the movie was at its weakest when it departed from the original material.
Elliott at least brought together a magnificent cast, but the surprise is Biel. I’ve always thought her more of a pretty face than as a strong actress, but she does very well with the material she has to work with which makes me wonder that if she were getting more challenging roles she wouldn’t be getting more respect as an actress. I hope she is given some based on her performance here; she plays a woman who is somewhat trapped by the strictures of her time but has a great deal of inner strength and an independent spirit. She has survived some of the most awful events you can imagine and is still able to keep her heart open despite that. Not Oscar-winning material mind you, but a superior performance nonetheless.
And the cast she has behind her! Firth is an Oscar-nominated actor just beginning to get the kind of notice that an actor who has delivered consistently strong performances should be bestowed. He gives a layered performance as a man haunted by horrors thee and me could not even begin to conceive of and walks through life with the ghosts of those horrors haunting him. Not many could pull it off as effectively as Firth does here.
Finally there’s Thomas who plays the bitchy mom. This could easily be a part that spirals into shrillness but Thomas plays the mother with dignity and decorum. She’s as British as you can get and has a burden of her own that she bears, keeping hidden with the typical stiff upper lip of the wealthy class. In a time when image was everything, she is terrified of the façade crumbling and the real face of the family showing up. Thomas makes an unsympathetic character largely identifiable to most of us.
Noel Coward is definitely an acquired taste but it is one I have learned to appreciate. It’s nice to watch a comedy once in awhile that doesn’t have to do with high school students trying to get laid, or adult losers trying to get laid, or stoners trying to get stoned…and laid. Coward had a flair for the English language and as someone who uses it as a tool I can appreciate and admire his gift. This wasn’t his best play to begin with, and it has been adapted for the screen nearly beyond recognition, but 30% Noel Coward is better than 100% most anyone else.
WHY RENT THIS: It’s a nice change of pace from modern comedies. Jessica Biel shows some acting chops. Fine supporting cast helps elevate the film.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Film strays from the original Noel Coward material quite a bit and is at its weakest when it does.
FAMILY VALUES: It’s a little bit sexy and there is smoking throughout as was common during the era; however it might be a bit more sophisticated than the average youngster would be into so make this part of your adult post-kids bedtime viewing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the end credits, all the musicians playing on the track are introduced as they would be from a bandstand during a live performance.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
TOMORROW: The Stone Angel