Relative Values

Relative Values (PG)

THE works of The Master – Noel Coward – have for too long been considered passe, yet this sparkling and exceedingly well-crafted version of his 1950s play proves what can be done with an established classic when the filmmakers eschew the concept of bastardisation and go for a warm and affectionate adaptation.

With a perfect cast – Stephen Fry, Colin Firth, William Baldwin, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Julie Andrews (yes, really) and the sensational Sophie Thompson, sister of Emma – giving it both barrels, this bright comedy of manners breezes through its 89 minutes and emerges as a renaissance for the neglected Coward.

The plot, which is typical Coward, centres on the 1950s love affair between the nice but gauche Lord Nigel Marshwood and the Hollywood star Miranda Frayle. Nigel’s stately mother, Lady Marshwood, receives the news with horror, while her effete nephew, Peter, is languidly indifferent.

Meanwhile, Miranda’s jilted lover, hunky actor Don Lucas, speeds after her from their former love nest and arrives at the Marshwood country home fired up for a fight.

As if things couldn’t get any worse, Moxie, the Marshwoods’ maid, reveals Miranda is her long-lost sister…

This gigantic chunk of harmless fun succeeds on all levels due, principally, to the casting of the thesps and the expert adaptation of Coward’s original play by Paul Rattigan and Michael Walker.

Both men, combined with director Eric (The Dreaming of Joseph Lees) Styles, deliberately avoid contemporary laughs, rooting their story within the Fifties atmosphere from which it was hewn.

It looks terrific, the actors blend in with the mood and positively relish some juicy lines positively dripping with wit and wonder. This is Coward at his best – solid, visionary direction, a clever script and generally fine performances.

Stephen Fry, as the dignified, below stairs butler, and Colin Firth, as the dry, camp Peter, enjoy themselves enormously, while Baldwin and Tripplehorn, as the token Yanks, bring Hollywood glamour to this gentle tale of a vanished England of olde worlde manners and decorum.

Only Julie Andrews fails to come up to par. She appears conditioned by the type of role she has traded on for 40 years, blending elements of Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music and The Americanization of Emily into her frightfully civilised matriarch.

The film belongs to Sophie Thompson as Moxie, who receives all the best lines, chews them up and wallops them out. One particular sequence – that old stand-by, the drunk scene – is memorably well-played and proves that comedy can thrive without profanity and gags about enemas.

Thompson is the major plus factor for two reasons: she effortlessly steals every scene of which she’s a part, and she is a winning substitute for her complacent sister, who appears capable only of delivering the same performance in every film she makes.

A welcome change from the run-of-the-mill British period flick, charming and classy, with everything one expects from The Master. And it looks fabulous.

Miss it at your peril.

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