This is another shorter review of a movie which I saw a little while ago, when it was released in the UK in November – though I know cinema-goers in the US and some other countries are still waiting for it.
The film has come in for quite a lot of criticism because, although it is loosely based on an early Noel Coward play, it doesn’t use any of Coward’s script, instead featuring a new screenplay by director Stephan Elliott, whose previous films include the acclaimed Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
I have to say this really didn’t worry me and I still found plenty to enjoy. The script might not be Coward’s, but it is still very witty. The film also has a great cast, headed by Jessica Biel, Colin Firth, Ben Barnes and Kristin Scott Thomas.
The costumes are another pleasure, along with the beautiful locations, including Monte Carlo and two English stately homes – one of them Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, a National Trust property which I’ve visited many times. There’s also lots of 1920s music, including snatches of Coward’s own famous songs, and a memorable dance scene.
The plot centres on a young Englishman, John Whittaker (Barnes), the heir to a country estate fallen on hard times, who marries the glamorous Larita (Jessica Biel) and takes her home from Monte Carlo to meet his parents (Firth and Scott Thomas).
However, his snobbish mother, who still seems to live in the 19th century, is dismayed to learn that her son’s bride is not only an American, but has been married before, and, worst of all, is a motor racing driver. Mrs Whittaker decides to dedicate her life to destroying her son’s marriage. Meanwhile, her own has long become nothing more than a sham, as her husband , haunted by his memories of the First World War, finds it impossible to settle back into the moth-eaten way of life he used to accept, and to put up with her mercenary attitudes.
Elliot has introduced some elements which feel distinctly modern, including one or two slightly crude/embarrassing gags (there’s a scene involving a dog where you’ll have to look away) which are far more the humour of the early 21st century than that of the 1920s. Occasionally these moments do jar, but I didn’t find them all that worrying. One thing that did worry me at times, though, was how caricatured Scott Thomas’ character is – it seemed a waste of a great actress, although I’m sure she relished creating this comic monster. It also seemed as if the main upper-class Englishwoman in the film is totally unsympathetic, whereas her husband is self-deprecating and lovely – although I think their two daughters are both quite sympathetic, in different ways, and John is rather shallow, so the set-up is a bit more complicated than this.
The weaving in of the war theme makes the film darker at times than you might expect for a Coward comedy set in the 1920s – but, then, the memory of war can never have been very far behind the glitter of the 20s anyway. And Firth plays the war scenes so brilliantly that they are among the best bits of the film. Here’s a link to a good interview with him where he talks about the movie.