Dispatched to Swafford Hall by the leukaemia-afflicted Jane (Emily Berrington) to discover whether her cousin David (Tommy Knight) can work miracles, washed-up poet Ted Wallace (Roger Allam) discovers estranged friend Michael Logan (Matthew Modine) hosting some eccentric guests seeking cures.
Despite much tweaking with the plot, the wit and erudition of Stephen Fry's bestseller survives this fudged adaptation, which often feels as though P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie collaborated on a country-house scenario and come up with ‘Peter's Friends Go Mad At Brideshead’. In fairness, screenwriters Tom Hodgson and Blanche McIntyre have pruned some of the dead-wood characters and devised a neat electronic media solution to the novel's epistolary quandary. But the built-in contrivances prove harder to circumvent and, consequently, this quirky comedy only occasionally sputters into life.
This quirky comedy only occasionally sputters into life.
Things could been stodgier still without the acerbic grandiloquence of Roger Allam, a creatively blocked, whisky-soused poet who agrees to become a detective for his ailing god-daughter (Berrington) when he loses his job as a theatre critic after picking a fight with the incompetent cast of a homoerotic production of Titus Andronicus and insulting editor Russell Tovey. But his mellifluent talent to offend comes into its own on arriving in Norfolk to discover that teenage godson David (Tommy Knight) has hit upon a highly unusual method of faith healing.
Saddled with some over-literal direction and with its references to buck-toothed fellatio, remedial pederasty, chat-show chauvinism and equine bestiality failing to raise the intended laughs, the picture limps towards its tragicomic conclusion, which sees Allam deliver his sleuthing summation like a pissed Poirot. He deserves better, but casts such a large shadow that his co-stars are reduced to ciphers.
Despite a wonderfully witty voiceover and the bullish playing of a willing ensemble, this bawdy romp consistently stumbles over its more contrived excesses.