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Watching this film was the one thing I did manage to do while lying wiped out on the sofa yesterday evening. It's my latest Lovefilm rental, which I'm pretty sure someone here recommended to me because of the 1920s setting. I can't remember who now - but thanks, whoever it was.

The basic plot is one of culture clashes. The action takes place almost entirely in and around an English country house during the autumn and winter of 1928. We have a tired, run-down mother trying to keep the family together, a feckless husband, two rather future-less daughters and a bon-vivant son in the Bright Young Things / Bertie Wooster tradition. At the beginning of the film, he turns up with a modern and devastatingly-beautiful American widow named Larita, whom he has married on a whim during a trip around Europe. Cue multiple tensions between the English family - impoverished and beholden to a traditional bond with the rural estate their ancestors have tended for generations - and the American wife - urbane, dynamic and independent.

It's based on a Noël Coward play, though with some tweaks, and a little extra fleshing-out of certain characters. Some of his trademark witty dialogue is present, but it doesn't feel like a riotous comedy. The tensions between the English family and the American wife become really quite nasty sometimes, and although she comes out of it all right at the end, it's clear that other characters won't. Handled very carefully, this could have worked, creating a poignant balance between comedy and tragedy, but I didn't feel it really came off in this particular case. The feelings and motivations of the characters seemed neither realistic and convincing enough for powerful drama, nor light-heartedly exaggerated enough for high comedy.

Despite the country house setting, the film deliberately challenges the conventions of British period drama. The dialogue includes some quite modern turns of phrase; there is an anachronistically chummy relationship between Larita and the butler; she herself is really more of a 21st-century woman than even the most modern woman in 1928 could have been; the characters occasionally burst into song as though they know that they are in a period pastiche; and indeed some of the soundtrack consists of modern songs like Tom Jones' 'Sex Bomb' or Billy Ocean's 'When The Going Gets Tough...', re-rendered in a jazz-age style. I thought this was a nice idea, but as with the balance of comedy and tragedy it didn't entirely work. It needed to be rather more comprehensive to really constitute something challenging, and as it was felt like a bit of a half-hearted effort.

The cinematography was pretty good, though, with lots of interesting shots - like a direct view down into the open sports-car as Larita and her husband drove up to the house for the first time, for instance, or a shot of a perfectly still record with the entire room spinning around it which gradually shifts so that the record is spinning and we are dancing around a now-stationary room with the characters. There were lots of looming stuffed animals, which I presume were there to represent the slightly creepy, fusty traditionalism of the family. There were lots of direct references to paintings and shots of characters framed through things which I read as representing the way so many of the characters were trying to live as idealised portraits rather than three-dimensional people. And there were also many shots of people reflected in shiny surfaces, which I saw as related to the way that the two opposing factions were holding not-entirely-flattering mirrors up to each other's beliefs and ideals.

The costume department had also done a very nice job of representing the cultural gulf between Larita and the family by having them all in quite tired-looking 1920s clothes, but Larita in the fashions of the next decade - bright, clean colours, short jackets with wide-legged trousers or close-fitting long evening gowns, depending on the occasion. I liked the trousers especially because I recently bought some very much like them myself, and have been enjoying wearing them as the occasion has allowed.

Overall, then, a good effort which I'm glad I saw, but maybe falling too much between different competing stools to be a real stand-out. Still, probably worth it for Larita's clothes alone.

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strange_complex
Jul. 25th, 2010 06:34 pm (UTC)
Aw, thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it. :-)
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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