1920s England. Young John Whittaker (Barnes) returns to the family fold with a new bride in tow. His mother (Scott Thomas) is quietly horrified at her new daughter-in-law Larita (Biel), an independent American much older than John and makes life diffi
It’s been a very long while since the last feature adaptation of a Noël Coward play, which might seem strange given his stature and cinematic record — Brief Encounter, This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit. But then, Coward was a writer very much of his time, tied to a certain type of Englishness, and his mannered chamber plays — melodramas, even — don’t translate to every era. So it’s to everyone’s credit that this loose, screwball adaptation of a Coward melodrama works as well as it does, and emerges as something strange but fresh.
The premise is simplicity itself: upper class scion John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) brings the wrong sort of girl home from holiday. Larita (Jessica Biel) is older, more sophisticated, fiercely independent and — gasp! — American. John’s matriarch (Kristen Scott Thomas) is appalled, his father (Colin Firth) enthralled, and his sisters are first delighted with then despairing of the new addition to the family.
While the play was a largely sober affair, this is a mix of farce, slapstick and the cringe of embarrassment, which somehow maintains much of the witty slash of Coward’s dialogue despite keeping almost none of his content. The tone does waver as it shifts from gear to gear, but the pace is so fast that there’s rarely a jerk. And there’s more depth for the parental roles: Mrs. Whittaker has some rationale behind her persecution of Larita, while her husband is a Great War veteran crumpled by the weight of his memories. But the film hangs on Larita, and Biel does enough to surprise those who know her from previous personae as token kick-ass female or object of desire. She’s funny, sophisticated and impossibly poised amid the hostility of the Whittaker household, and if she still feels too young to play the older woman of the world, that’s entirely because she is and no fault of effort of hers.
If this bright and breezy effort doesn’t quite maintain the mix of humour and drama as the third act reaches its conclusion, nor have quite enough weight to anchor its flightier moments, these are minor criticisms of a sweetly charming film. And listen carefully for the amusingly anachronistic soundtrack.
While its tone occasionally wavers and there are some wobbly performances, this has moments of true lightness, and a welcome sense of whimsy often missing in the costume genre.