An Ealing-style light comedy in which the little guys take on the forces of capital and modernity, "House!" comes very close to scoring the jackpot. Propelled by a knockout performance from Kelly Macdonald and helmed with impressive technical finesse by former kid-TV director Julian Kemp, this fanciful, engaging yarn about a fading Welsh bingo hall threatened by a ritzy new rival is hamstrung only by a faltering final act which is more a warm, dying fall than a surefire crowd-pleaser. With a bright campaign and considerable ad coin, pic could score reasonable returns; some fest play is also not out of the question.

An Ealing-style light comedy in which the little guys take on the forces of capital and modernity, “House!” comes very close to scoring the jackpot. Propelled by a knockout performance from Kelly Macdonald and helmed with impressive technical finesse by former kid-TV director Julian Kemp, this fanciful, engaging yarn about a fading Welsh bingo hall threatened by a ritzy new rival is hamstrung only by a faltering final act which is more a warm, dying fall than a surefire crowd-pleaser. With a bright campaign and considerable ad coin, pic could score reasonable returns; some fest play is also not out of the question.

Basic theme of traditional community values triumphing over cocky interlopers — dear to many Brits’ hearts — was a staple of Ealing Studio films in their heyday, and “House!” is very similar in some respects to at least one eccentric comedy, “The Smallest Show on Earth,” Basil Dearden’s 1957 classic about a broken-down movie theater threatened with closure.

The singular achievement of Kemp’s pic, from a script by Welsh legit/TV writer Jason Sutton, is to take elements of that comedy tradition but re-work them for a contempo audience, with characters who are genuinely engaging and direction that is highly cinematic, making the most of modern techniques and the widescreen format.

La Scala, owned by hammy Welsh-Italian Giovanni Anzani (Freddie Jones), is a venerable theater which has hosted many forms of entertainment — music hall performances, legit plays and movies — in its long history. Once the U.K.’s biggest bingo arena, it’s now on its last legs, catering to an audience of pensioners and regulars attracted by Anzani’s cheap pasta served at back. Worse, a flashy new center, Mega Bingo, is due to open just up the valley.

Anzani’s small staff is devastated as it looks unemployment in the eye, especially Linda (Macdonald), who’s up to her neck in bills following the recent death of her mom. Her b.f., Gavin (Jason Hughes), who’s also Anzani’s talented caller, is headhunted by Mega Bingo and accepts; and her aunt Beth (Miriam Margolyes) is leery of helping her financially after being burned by Linda’s mother long ago.

In desperation, Anzani decides to cut his staff’s wages and use the money to buy some new electronic equipment so La Scala can enter the National Bonanza game and maybe win $:1 million ($ 1.5 million). Linda’s dilemma is whether she should come clean about a gift she’s recently discovered she has — a kind of ESP by which she can guess the numbers in advance. Unfortunately she confides in Beth, who proves less than trustworthy.

Movie’s first hour develops with considerable assurance, juggling a variety of moods and characters — plus past history — as it builds to the main setpiece, the National Bonanza game. Through clever use of lighting and lenses, plus whip-pans and editing, the film has a slightly abstract feel which raises it above being simply a parochial comedy.

With everyone playing in lilting Welsh accents, there’s also a light, fanciful flavor to the whole thing which makes Kemp’s frequent visual tropes — which at one point include Linda and Beth appearing in their own flashbacks — acceptable, especially in a yarn than hinges on the extra-sensory. Kemp and Norwegian lenser Kjell Vassdal (“Junk Mail,” “Sophie’s World”) don’t miss a trick to elevate such local material into amake-believe fable in which Linda’s doubts over whether to exploit her inherited powers becomes the movie’s dramatic touchstone.

None of this would have worked if the characters were simply cutouts and the thesps just mugging along in colorful accents. But Sutton’s script, which also makes room for a variety of smaller roles, allows the protags to grow and isn’t, as becomes clear later on, simply about winning.

After the National Bonanza, there is a much quieter fourth act that ends satisfyingly enough but doesn’t exactly send out auds on a “Full Monty” high. That decision could prove to be the pic’s commercial handicap.

The petite Macdonald is aces as the small-town but determined girl who becomes gradually aware of her special gift but is loath to unlock it. Jones is fully at home as the sad old ham Anzani, and fellow vet Margolyes surprisingly restrained as Linda’s duplicitous aunt. Casting of smaller roles is acute down the line.

House!

(U.K.)

Production

A Pathe Distribution release of a Live Wire Films presentation, in association with CF1 and the South Wales Film Commission, of a Victor Film Co. production, with participation of British Screen and the Arts Film Council of England. (International sales: Victor Film Co., London.) Produced by Michael Kelk. Executive producers, Adam Sutcliffe, Christopher Figg. Co-producer, David Ball. Directed by Julian Kemp. Screenplay, Jason Sutton, based on an original idea by Eric Styles.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe prints, widescreen), Kjell Vassdal; editor, Jonathan Rudd; music, Mark Thomas; production designer, Kit Line; art director, Tom Pearce; costume designer, Leila Ransley; sound (Dolby Digital), Alan Jones; digital visual effects, the Film Factory; assistant director, Jon Williams. Reviewed at the Moving Picture Co. preview theater, London, Jan. 24, 2000. (In Cannes Film Festival -- market.) Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Linda ..... Kelly Macdonald Giovanni Anzani ..... Freddie Jones Beth ..... Miriam Margolyes Gavin ..... Jason Hughes Kay ..... Mossie Smith
With: Gwenllian Davies, Sue Hopkins, Eileen Edwards, Marlene Griffiths, Bruce Forsyth, William Thomas, Helen Griffin, Lynn Hunter, Sian Rivers, Keith Chegwin.
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