Although based on the writings of a child (9-year-old Daisy Ashford, to be precise), “The Young Visiters” is a family film but not really a children’s story. That’s a delicate high-wire act, and director David Yates (whose credits include the BBC thriller “State of Play”) and writer Patrick Barlow have deftly tiptoed through it, yielding a warm and surprisingly unsentimental production that has “evergreen” written all over it.
I confess to having been previously unaware of the precocious Ashford, whose late-19th century novel is much beloved in her native England. In it, she tells the somewhat disjointed story of Alfred Salteena (producer and star Jim Broadbent), who falls for the lovely Ethel Monticue (Lyndsey Marshal). Alfred then miscalculates badly by seeking to leverage his relationship with the wealthy Lord Bernard Clark (Hugh Laurie, star of Fox’s upcoming series “House”) to woo her.
Alas, this ranks high on the list of dimwitted ideas, since the social-climbing Ethel has visions of grand balls in Bernard’s mansion, and Bernard quickly sets his sights on her as well. So poor Alfred gets dispatched to the Crystal Palace, where he hopes the Earl of Clincham (an amusingly haughty Bill Nighy) can teach him the art of nobility.
Attempting to capture the childlike tone of Ashford’s writing (down to various misspellings, from the title to a sign that directs Alfred toward the “Prince of Whales”), the cast turns in exaggerated performances that require a little getting used to. Broadbent’s Alfred walks through the world with a Stan Laurel look on his face and annoying Forrest Gump voice, blissfully unaware that his not-so-carefully laid plans risk going awry.
What emerges, however, is simple yet elegant, an adult fable told through a child’s eyes. That includes every aspect of the meticulous production, from the costumes to the sumptuous settings to Nicholas Hooper’s lovely score.
Perhaps reflecting the desire to be associated with such an undertaking, Yates also has the benefit of working with a topnotch cast. Marshal in particular shines as Ethel, who could easily have come across far less charitably than she does.
If nothing else, “The Young Visiters” highlights the breadth of BBC America’s menu, representing the sort of movie that rarely finds much tube traction in the U.S. Let’s only hope that in these age-conscious times, this notion of tapping into the fertile imagination of 9-year-old authors doesn’t take root on this side of the Pond.