Our rating: 3 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
The Whittaker house has not seen such a scandal in many years, not since Mr. Whittaker (Colin Firth) went gallivanting after the war and didn't come until his finances ran out. His relationship with his wife (Kristen Scott Thomas) has not improved since then and it makes for an icy reception when the news arrives that their son John (Ben Barnes) has unexpectedly married. He intends to bring his new wife Larita (Jessica Biel) home for a few weeks to introduce her around, and the house is in an uproar as a result. It was hoped that John would marry elsewhere and improve their precarious financial situation... no one expected him to come home married to a glamorous American girl like Larita. Meeting with immediate hostility, particularly from the two younger sisters, Marion and Hilda, Larita hopes they will not stay long in the country...
But that is not how things are done in England. Married couples live quite happily with their in-laws and are expected to participate in local activities like fox hunts and Christmas parties. Not certain what to do with his wife, John tries to assure her that his family will come to like her in time, but the pants-wearing Larita stands out like a sore thumb, and when her sister-in-laws dig up some unexpected and scandalous information from her past, it becomes apparent that if she intends to defend herself, she will have to engage in all-out war. The result is a fairly funny romp through a series of absurd situations intended to poke gentle fun at two different cultures. One of the funniest lines in the entire thing is when Marion says she doesn't feel like smiling and her father, with a straight face, replies, "You're British: fake it."
Certain of the cast members have worked together in other projects and brought a charming sort of familiarity with them that only enhances the family dynamic. While everyone turns in a grand performance, the scene stealers here are Kristen Scott Thomas as the icy, unforgiving and sometimes downright insulting mother-in-law, and Jessica Biel as the frustrated, unapologetic American girl who is fascinated with machinery and deeply allergic to the flowers her family insists on having in every room. Ben Barnes is also admirable as her rather pathetic and lovesick husband, but I must say that it is Colin Firth that runs away with the movie in the last five minutes. Most of the fast will be familiar to fans of BBC productions, since all of the actors have been recently seen in miniseries. The costumes, sets, and hairstyles are gorgeous but at times it is difficult to hear the actors, because the musical track is so loud.
There are certain things about this movie and its script that might offend people. The twist at the end could shock more sensitive viewers but I found it the most logical conclusion, built up over a series of simple but meaningful scenes throughout the film. I expected it to end as it did and so it failed to surprise me. The other aspect that might make people squirm involves a little dog. Larita accidentally sits down hard on it and kills it (implied but not shown), and then an extended scene is played for laughs where she tries to conceal the body and winds up burying it in the garden inside a pillowcase. The hounds later dig it up and she is forced to confess. We never see the dead dog, but it did seem in questionable taste. It was a funny, in a horrible kind of way. There is a reference to assisted suicide and also murder. The audience might be concerned for the fate of a fox during the hunt... but Louisa quickly steps in to save the day.
Language is mild but does contain one harsh abuse of deity and some scattered profanities. Of greater concern is the sensuality woven throughout. Being newlyweds, Larita and John are very affectionate with one another. The most embarrassing scenes include the rest of the family overhearing their violent lovemaking and interrupting them in the barn. (They are shocked and spring apart, scrambling to cover up; John holds something over his crotch area.) There are some sexual innuendos and an abstract nude painting, along with a lot of naked statues in and around the house. There is a brief shot of a girl's bare backside during a bawdy bordello dance, some cleavage in period gowns, and a rather sensual tango.
The film will not be everyone's cup of tea but at the end it left me with a smile. Then again, that might have been the fact that at long last, I have seen the ever-charming Colin Firth do the tango...