Success is strictly relative in “Relative Values,” an English comedy of manners adapted from Noel Coward’s ’50s legiter in which the charm of the original goes on and off like a light bulb. Individual performances and Coward’s neatly turned dialogue just about make the pic go the distance, triumphing over unimaginative direction and an awkward screenplay that tries to load too much onto an already flimsy structure. Despite its cast, headed by the long-absent Julie Andrews, this doesn’t look to make much impression at theatrical soirees.
First performed in London in 1951, though never transferred to the U.S., the play restored Coward’s rep as a playwright following a series of flops after World War II. Entirely set in the living room-cum-library of a large country house, it’s a typically elegant comic fabrication that muses on class contradictions in the rapidly changing England of mid-century.
Paul Rattigan and Michael Walker’s adaptation rightly tries to open out the action but goes some way beyond simply carving up the dialogue and situating it in a variety of locations.
By trying to create a full-scale comedy of confusion, they’re hampered at every turn by the fact that Coward’s play is almost plotless, relying on the felicities of its dialogue, rather than physical farce, for effect. It’s a sophisticated, drawing-room souffle that the filmers have tried to turn into a full cinematic meal.
Weakest part of the movie is the first half-hour, when it yo-yos between stately Marshwood House in England, a Riviera hotel room and Hollywood as all the characters are introduced and their dramatic lines set on parallel courses.
In the south of France, nerdy aristo Nigel (Edward Atterton) is romancing glam American movie star Miranda Frayle (Jeanne Tripplehorn), and announces their engagement. The news ruffles the feathers of his mom, Felicity (Andrews), and of Hollywood leading man Don Lucas (William Baldwin), Miranda’s former lover.
While Felicity rearranges her upper lip and decides to play the loving mother, Don hits the bottle, quits his latest movie and decides to fly to England. Meanwhile, Felicity’s longtime personal maid, Moxie (Sophie Thompson), threatens to leave Marshwood House, revealing only with great reluctance that Miranda is her long-estranged younger sister.
When the pic settles down at Marshwood during the third reel, it develops some badly needed verbal momentum as Coward’s dialogue is finally allowed to breathe.
The crux of the play is how the class-conscious Brits are to deal with the two social no-nos that the marriage announcement has triggered: Nigel getting hitched to a “ghastly” American and Moxie, a servant, having to live alongside her sister, soon to be the new lady of the manor.
In the first substantial dialogue sequence — which occupies a whole scene in the original play — Felicity’s butler, Crestwell (Stephen Fry, all Jeevesian smarm), comes up with the idea of Moxie having suddenly inherited some money and deciding to stay on at Marshwood out of choice.
That solves the problem of social inequity when Miranda finally arrives. But the greater problem of Nigel marrying a trashy movie star proves rather more intractable, especially when she arrives and theatrically embraces her forthcoming role. The sudden arrival of an inebriated Don when everyone is having dinner provides an opportunity that Felicity grasps with aplomb.
In fact, the resolution is surprisingly rapid after all the buildup, which leaves the pic — having refashioned itself as more of a farce — looking rather impoverished in payoff.
The two scripters and director Eric Styles come up with some peripheral decoration to the story (star-struck staff gawking at Miranda and Don; press besieging the gates of the grounds) that keeps the pot bubbling, but by the end, the viewer is forced to agree with Felicity that “nothing has really happened anyway.”
As the stately mother looking to save her idiot son from another blunder in his charmed life, Andrews enunciates the dialogue with her usual clarity but is rather too icy and remote to give it real bounce. (Coward originally wrote the role for Gladys Cooper.)
Far better are Thompson, as the repressed Moxie, who finally gives her younger sister a mouthful, and the dependable Fry as the all-wise butler. Both Tripplehorn and Baldwin are good as the Yanks; Colin Firth, however, is miscast and looks uncomfortable as Felicity’s waspish, Cowardian nephew.
Look of the movie is only OK, not helped by Styles’ uninflected direction (reminiscent of the flatter scenes in his previous “Dreaming of Joseph Lees”) and lenser Jimmy Dibling’s extremely variable photography, which shows no interest in any subtleties of lighting. If ever a playwright called for classy, high-sheen production values to complement the dialogue, it’s Coward — but he doesn’t get it here.
John Debney’s busy score is a major assist in creating mood and a sense of animation, supplying a token gloss that’s otherwise absent. Period details are fine, and the Isle of Man stands in reasonably for southeast England.