More coin could have put a real shine on “The Clandestine Marriage,” a likable and generally well-played costume comedy whose attributes are too often limited by the obvious penury of its budget. Cleanly scripted, and toplined by wonderful perfs from Nigel Hawthorne and Timothy Spall, as a penniless aristocratic lech and nouveau riche landowner, this intelligent adaptation of the 1766 play by George Coleman and actor-manager David Garrick will look equally good on the small screen but deserves more quality niche exposure than it will probably receive.
Set in the late 18th century, pic opens with a young couple, handsome Richard Lovewell (Paul Nicholls) and pretty and pregnant Fanny Sterling (Natasha Little), marrying secretly at Fleet Debtors Prison, London, the only place in the country that does not require parental consent. Lovewell works as clerk to Fanny’s father (Spall), a salt-of-the-earth type who’s made his money through hard graft and now lives in a splashy residence in the country with his waspish sister, Mrs. Heidelberg (Joan Collins).
Aware of Lovewell’s liking for his daughter, Sterling still won’t let him marry her, and when the couple arrive home neither of them can bring themselves to tell him they’re hitched. It’s this secret, known only to Fanny’s trusted maid, Lucy (Lara Harvey), that drives the misunderstandings behind the plot.
Enter aging, bewigged aristo Lord Ogleby (Hawthorne) and his foppish son, Sir John (Tom Hollander), the latter due to marry Fanny’s elder sister, the shrewish Betsy (Emma Chambers), in a couple of days’ time. For Sterling, who’s building a water folly to mark the occasion, the marriage means acceptance into society; for Ogleby, it means badly needed lucre to pay off his debts.
Unlike many costume comedies, “Marriage” sets up and positions its characters with simplicity and clarity, with relationships explained from the start and the main plotlines unencumbered by too much detail. All protags are succinctly sketched, and only the “downstairs” pairing of maid Lucy and black African valet Brush (Ray Fearon) seems underdeveloped and done with an eye to late 20th century sensibilities.
The expected complexities start when Fanny becomes the object of affection of both Ogleby and his son. Sterling, never one to leave a deal unexplored, enters into financial bargaining for his daughter’s hand, still unaware that she has secretly married Lovewell.
There’s nothing too complex here, and the humor is played for smiles rather than guffaws. But it’s handled with such style by a talented cast that, by final curtain, a real warmth has developed for these quirky, rather hopeless figures trapped by social strictures partly of their own making.
Hawthorne — whose facial expression when spotting a piece of nubile flesh is a treasure — dominates the going with ease and lack of hamming, and Spall, who only now is coming into his own as a character actor, strikes acting sparks when the two are together. Collins, in her first outing as a “bag” rather than “bitch” (her own description), suffers from obvious post-synching that sometimes isn’t even lip-matched.
Among the larger ensemble, the only noticeably weak link is Little, whose diction lacks the naturalness of the surrounding players’. Hollander is good in a typically louche role, Nicholls charismatic as Lovewell, and Chambers excellent as the sharp-tongued Betsy. Harvey, too, is fine as the maid, Lucy.
Shot entirely on location, pic is hardly glossy in look but is given shape by Stanislas Syrewicz’s well-spotted, classical-flavored score. Hawthorne and Collins cop associate producer credits for temporarily bailing out the production when cash flow dried up during shooting.