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A Rather English Marriage

A tony cast, led by Albert Finney on overdrive, chews up the scenery to entertaining --- and finally moving --- effect in the true-Brit comedy of manners "A Rather English Marriage."

A tony cast, led by Albert Finney on overdrive, chews up the scenery to entertaining — and finally moving — effect in the true-Brit comedy of manners “A Rather English Marriage.” Warmly received by local auds at its London fest showings, this delightfully played study of two crusty old widowers who end up cohabiting in “Odd Couple” style will amuse connoisseurs of well-turned dialogue, English social foibles and effortless screen chemistry. On the business side, pic has “BBC” and “small screen” written all over it.

Reggie (Finney), a retired RAF squadron leader, and Roy (Tom Courtenay), a former milkman, meet when their respective wives expire at the same hospital in a country town. Both are unequipped to handle a solitary existence, though for different reasons: Roy, a homebody who was devoted to his spouse, lacks somebody to look after, and Reggie, a philandering layabout, couldn’t boil an egg if he sat on it. A social worker suggests that Roy move into Reggie’s capacious manse.

From the outset, the relationship is founded on traditional, mutually understood conventions. Reggie calls Roy by his surname, Southgate, as if he’s a chief butler, and Roy calls Reggie simply Squadron Leader. When he’s not being gently chided for using working-class vocabulary (“supper” instead of “dinner”), Roy is allowed to use Reggie’s car to visit his son, a ne’er-do-well in jail. Roy’s own trips to the big city are limited to occasional dalliances with Sabrina (Emily Morgan, choice) at a high-class brothel.

Into Reggie’s life suddenly wafts the sniffy Lizzie (Joanna Lumley), a gold digger who reckons the stiff-upper-lipped old soak could be the answer to her failing boutique business. Little does she realize that, fiscally, Reggie isn’t all he seems.

Though the initial departure point of the comedy — skillfully adapted by veteran Andrew Davies from Angela Carter’s novel — is a kind of British version of the Neil Simon classic, with Courtenay in the Jack Lemmon role and Finney in Walter Matthau’s, pic gains a true emotional undercurrent of its own with the entrance of Lumley and the gradual stripping down of Finney’s character to reveal the real man beneath. Lumley more than holds her own against the two male thesps (previously together over a decade ago in “The Dresser,” and more recently on the London stage in “Art”), whose natural chemistry is one of the movie’s highlights, with particularly generous playing from Courtenay as the effective straight man.

TV helmer Paul Seed directs smoothly, though in traditional small-screen style, and Jim Parker’s score is a major assist in both tone and atmosphere. Unfortunately, color in print caught is rather wan in the 16mm blowup, and plain muddy in some interiors.

A Rather English Marriage

(COMEDY-DRAMA -- BRITISH)

  • Production: A Wall to Wall Television production, for the BBC. Produced by Jo Willett. Executive producers, Alex Graham, David M. Thompson. Directed by Paul Seed. Screenplay, Andrew Davies, from the novel by Angela Carter.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Gavin Finney; editor, Dave King; music, Jim Parker; production designer, Michael Pickwoad; art director, Henry Harris; costume designer, Frances Tempest; sound, Jim Greenhorn; assistant director, Cordelia Hardy. Reviewed at London Film Festival, Nov. 18, 1998. Running time: 104 MIN.
  • With: Reggie Cunningham-Jarvis ..... Albert Finney Roy Southgate ..... Tom Courtenay Lizzie Franks ..... Joanna Lumley Younger Reggie ..... John Light Younger Mary ..... Katie Carr Younger Roy ..... Iain Jones Younger Grace ..... Caroline Carver Mary ..... Ursula Howells Adjoa Andoh ..... Mandy Hope Vivian ..... Jeremy Clyde Sabrina ..... Emily Morgan
  • Music By: