Two powerhouse Brit actresses expertly work the opportunities at hand in "Girls' Night," though their efforts can elevate this rather formulaic tearjerker only so far. Seriocomedy evoked predictable, sentimental enthusiasm at its Sundance premiere; but like last year's Audience Award winner, "The Myth of Fingerprints," this is unlikely to gain the crit support needed at the wickets, at least when off its native turf. Pic is best suited for telecast, with co-presenter Showtime the obvious Stateside vehicle.

Two powerhouse Brit actresses expertly work the opportunities at hand in “Girls’ Night,” though their efforts can elevate this rather formulaic tearjerker only so far. Seriocomedy evoked predictable, sentimental enthusiasm at its Sundance premiere; but like last year’s Audience Award winner, “The Myth of Fingerprints,” this is unlikely to gain the crit support needed at the wickets, at least when off its native turf. Pic is best suited for telecast, with co-presenter Showtime the obvious Stateside vehicle.

After a brief, enigmatic prelude in the Southwest, we settle in English North Country, where best friends and in-laws Dawn (Brenda Blethyn) and Jackie (Julie Walters) work together on an electronics assembly line. Hot-tempered latter’s marriage has disintegrated to fuming silences. By contrast, Dawn’s domestic woes — two bratty kids and comfy, if slightly stale, wedlock to Jackie’s brother Steve (George Costigan) — are minor-league. But she’s experienced odd motor difficulties at work of late.

Friday is girls’ night out, with the factory crew trotting off to a bingo club whose impresario (James Gaddas) happens to be Jackie’s secret, steady amour. While she’s having it off in the back office, Dawn gets lucky — to the tune of $100,000, which by sisterly habit and innate generosity she feels bound to share with Jackie. In a flash, that bolder dame leaves both husband and irksome job.

That last departure occurs just as Dawn suffers a seizure. The diagnosis: brain tumor. Dawn opts to withhold this info from all, even as her hair begins falling out and radiation treatments fail. When Jackie finally susses matters out, she impulsively buys two tickets to Las Vegas — her friend’s longtime dream destination. Less credibly, Dawn hustles off to the airport without informing hubby or children.

At this midway point, pic’s comic elements grow more prominent, as the two fortysomething working-class Brits have a spree amid high Yankee glitz. They buy rhinestone cowgirl outfits, spot an Elvis impersonator and revel in other unnatural wonders — notably Kris Kristofferson, basically reprising his “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” role from 24 years ago as a late-arriving Prince Charming in a 10-gallon hat. The idyll can’t last, however. After flying back home to her frantic spouse, Dawn grows seriously ill. Many tears and a big funeral-home curtain speech for Walters presage a tag bringing matters full circle.

Award-winning Brit TV writer Kate Mellor drew her screenplay from personal experience with a dying friend, and while results are undeniably heartfelt, they also seldom escape laughing-through-tears cliche. Helmer Nick Hurran doesn’t ladle on pathos with too heavy a hand, yet his workmanlike, unimaginative approach doesn’t jimmy in any extra nuance, either.

Two lead thesps easily handle their tasks here. Less mannered than in her much-acclaimed “Secrets & Lies” turn, Blethyn etches Dawn as a selfless soul more concerned to the end about others’ welfare than her own. Walters’ brassy, loyal, cheerfully libidinous pal proves more dependent than she’d like to admit when the chips are down. If the roles don’t reveal new facets in either performer, both still give the earnest but undistinguished material their considerable all.

Support players are fine, with the abandoned spouses (plus Gaddas’ none-too-reliable boyfriend) given more meat to chew on than Kristofferson’s stock cowpoke-to-the-rescue. Tech package is routine, milking just standard color from the overused Vegas milieu.

Girls' Night

(British --- Comedy-drama --- Color)

Production

A Granada presentation, in association with Showtime, of a Granada Film production. Produced by Bill Boyes. Executive producer, Craig McNeil. Directed by Nick Hurran. Screenplay, Kay Mellor.

Crew

Camera (color), David Odd; editor, John Richards; music, Ed Shearmur; production design, Taff Batley; sound , Mike Turner; casting, Doreen Jones. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema), Jan. 20, 1998. Running time: 111 min.

With

Dawn - Brenda Blethyn Jackie - Julie Walters Cody - Kris Kristofferson Paul - James Gaddas Steve - George Costigan Dave - Philip Jackson
Camera (color), David Odd; editor, John Richards; music, Ed Shearmur; production design, Taff Batley; sound, Mike Turner; casting, Doreen Jones. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema), Jan. 20, 1998. Running time: 111 min.
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