A glamorous American woman racing driver gets into battle of wits with her disapproving aristocratic English mother-in-law in this sparkling period comedy adapted from the Noel Coward play. John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) and Larita Huntington (Jessica Biel) marry in haste following a whirlwind romance, only to face the reality of tradition, inheritance and British decline in the inter-war years, all neatly encapsulated in the crumbling stately household of Kristen Scott-Thomas.
As the battle of wits between the two women escalates, John and Larita’s marriage begins to suffer…
The cast are excellent; Scott-Thomas clinging onto some sympathy despite her brittle, domineering matriarch, Ben Barnes is all grown up from Narnia, putting some charisma into a lightweight character and Colin Firth hides himself away with a typically understated performance. Jessica Biel is the revelation in a mature performance, a spirited, sharp-witted comedienne with good timing. Sadly the character gets a little mangled in Elliott’s script, now more virtuous than easy, the part was originally much a more scandalous character. Kris Marshall’s understated (if youthful) butler scene-steals at every appearance.
Set in 1929, yet remarkably written in 1924, the play foreshadowed Britain’s abdication crisis; an American woman with a shady past crashes into a well-heeled English household, married to the family’s only son and heir.
Of course, Coward wrote in the thirties and the social mores of the time is little more than a faded photograph to us. You are more likely to remember the comedy over the moral dilemmas and revelation of ‘shocking’ secrets at the end. Too many concessions are made in the attempt to jazz things up and make it ‘relevant.’ Anachronistic, lacking in style and period sensibility, every few minutes the MTV generation has to be fed a mix of Coward and Cole Porter songs, indifferently recorded, clashing horribly with a jarring twenties rendition of Sex Bomb. No. Just No. At times this clumsiness tips the film into spoof. Add to that the problem of Hollywood’s view of Britain in the past; the film is overloaded with costumes, affected accents and decaying locations.
It’s not perfect, but I’ll take a comedy of manners with a pinch of pathos over a Michael Bay movie any day. Coward would have hated this version, but it looks handsome enough, sparkles just enough and the performances rise above the lumpy adaptation. I will give this a second look sometime. RC
Running time: 1 hr. 33 min.
Directed by: Stephan Elliott
Written by: Stephan Elliott, Sheridan Jobbins
Cast: Ben Barnes, Colin Firth, Jessica Biel, Katherine Parkinson, Kimberley Nixon, Kris Marshall, Kristin Scott Thomas, Kristin Scott Thomas
In Theaters: Nov 7, 2008 Wide
US Box Office: £2.5M
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics