A good script, okay leads and some highly mobile direction make the best of “The Abduction Club,” an enjoyable costume romp that would have been even better with star power in the saddle. Serio-comic romantic adventure about an 18th-century association of Irish bachelors on the lookout for rich wives carries a modern edge but not enough to spoil the general fun. Whether a market exists for such historical fare, without major names or action gizmos or Jane Austen’s authorship to drive it, will be tested when pic goes wide in Blighty July 19.
“Based on true events,” yarn is set in Co. Waterford, Ireland, 1780, a time when eldest sons by law inherited family estates, leaving younger brothers to embrace the priesthood or heiresses. Out of this state of affairs evolved so-called abduction clubs, which “kidnapped” wealthy daughters who’d already been charmed face-to-face and who are then given a night to decide if they want to marry the guy. If not, they’re allowed to return to their family manse.
To sell this unlikely concept, film cleverly starts with a smoothly executed kidnapping, at pistol point, of a willing young babe (Amy Sheils) by a likable young blade (Ben Palmer) and his fellow association members. Happy outcome, on both sides, shows the system at its most workable.
Story proper focuses on the seemingly wealthy Kennedy family, whose younger daughter, Anne (Sophia Myles), is being courted against her will by a rich businessman, Power (Liam Cunningham). Separately, abduction club member Byrne (Daniel Lapaine) targets Anne’s elder sister, Catherine (Alice Evans).During the subsequent bungled kidnap, Byrne’s buddy, Strang (Matthew Rhys), finds himself thrown together with the feisty Anne, who’s come along for the ride. Unfortunately, she’s only 17 — and abduction club rules prohibit taking any woman under 18 and more than one from the same family at the same time.
When Byrne and Strang refuse to return the women forthwith, the club’s leader, Sir Myles (Patrick Malahide), expels them. And when Power alerts the local militia, with the help of the Attorney General (Edward Woodward), the two women decide, at least temporarily, to take their chances with the young men.
Lengthy set-up to what is basically a mismatched romancer pays dividends in the second act as the quartet of thesps develops an easy, likable chemistry and the script manages to bring a fresh feel to generic material. Having politely rejected their suitors in a nicely written and played sequence earlier on, the sisters gradually develop a rapprochement with the men while on the road fleeing Power’s men.
Screenplay has a classic three-act architecture — comparatively rare in current Brit cinema — which gives the film a satisfying, if slightly old-fashioned, feel. The end is hardly in doubt, but the way in which the older, pragmatic Catherine and younger, pert Anne both leave the door ever so slightly open in their different ways, while seeming to slam it shut in the men’s faces, is a tribute to the well-worked script by Bill Britten and Richard Crawford as well as the playing of Evans (wise and wry) and Myles (channeling a younger Kate Winslet).
However, with most of the elements in place on the tech and writing sides, there’s the feel that with four name stars, pic really could have taken flight. As the male leads, Australian-born Lapaine and Welsh thesp Rhys don’t exhibit much natural chemistry between themselves (making their attempts at jocularity seem forced), though both blend together well enough in the foursome. Lapaine is the most charismatic of the lot.
Supporting cast of elders is strong, with Woodward, Malahide and, especially, the fearsomely focused Cunningham bringing real weight to their roles.
Technical credits are smooth, led by Howard Atherton’s widescreen lensing of the Irish countryside and locations, and Pamela Power’s tight (sometimes too tight) shearing to a trim 95 minutes. Shaun Davey’s symphonic score, with classical flavorings, keeps things bubbling along, and costume and production design (especially details of food) is natural and full of small, unexpected grace notes. Pic thankfully avoids the chaotic, over-designed look of the misconceived “Plunkett & Macleane” (1999), set in London a couple of decades earlier.
For the record, film’s initial director, in fall 2000, was co-scripter Britten, replaced after a few days by Stefan Schwartz, whose commercial smarts have already been proven on his road movie “Soft Top, Hard Shoulder” and caper comedy “Shooting Fish.”