Studio: Sony Pictures
Cast: Jessica Biel, Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Barnes
Director: Stephan Elliott
Release Date: September 15, 2009, 11:29 am
Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, brief partial nudity and smoking throughout
Run Time: 01h:36m:30s
"Why can't we live in moments like these forever?" - John (Ben Barnes)
Movie Grade: B
DVD Grade: B-
This is a weirdly self-contradictory movie, a period costume drama made by those who apparently hate period costume dramas. The premise of the production, essentially, is that Noel Coward was a rebel, kept under tight reins by his times—toss off the smoking jacket and the cigarette holder and the martini glass, and you've got a wild man, a bruising social critic, underneath. Alas, it doesn't quite come off—the movie is sufficiently amiable, but it's not tart enough for satire nor funny enough to make up for it.
The scenery is beautiful and the actors are game, at least. Jessica Biel is front and center as Larita, personification of the ugly American—she's from Detroit, drives racecars, has buried one husband, and now latched onto another. She is now Mrs. John Whittaker, and the film is about her rocky relationship with her new in-laws—all of the action occurs in and around the grand Whittaker estate, bursting with servants and fox hunts and no shortage of daffy relations. Ben Barnes plays John, but he's really subordinate here to his mother—Kristin Scott Thomas seems to have made the move a bit too suddenly into dotage for this role, but she's a sharp-fanged antagonist, onto what she sees as the greedy and carnal appetites of her new firecracker of a daughter-in-law.
Thomas is terrific, communicating her disdain with the arch of an eyebrow; just as good is Colin Firth as the lord of the manor, who isn't as exuberant as he carries the psychological scars of his time in the Great War. The film is hypnotically interested in the cars and clothes and hats and hairstyles of the period, and you can see why—they're all visually sumptuous—but it makes it feel as if we're watching kids play dress-up rather than a full-throated movie.
Biel is a reasonably deft comedienne, but there's not much that's compelling about her—we're not really champing at the bit to find out if she's really in love or is only on the make, so there's not much pulling us through. There are also embarrassing cascades of backstory coming at us in the second half of the film especially—it seems more ungainly than anything else, but at times you think that the film has as much contempt for its audience as its characters have for one another.
Director Stephan Elliott and co-screenwriter Sheridan Jobbins provide a jolly commentary track, in which they tell us that only maybe a third of what's left here is Coward. There's also a blooper reel (not hilarious), four deleted scenes (all extraneous and rightly cut), an original trailer, and footage from the New York premiere, with Firth, Barnes and Elliott on the red carpet.
Jon Danziger September 15, 2009, 11:29 am