While Judge Bryan Pope has been known to bird watch, he's more renowned for his spicy cucumber sandwiches and poppy seed cake.
You stand there asking me to marry you and then, without a blush, you tell me you've done the same thing to two other women when their husbands died?
What is that but honesty?
Well, for one thing it's bad manners.
This British movie, made for television back in 1983, probably went unnoticed by American audiences when it aired. Thanks to a thoughtful, literate teleplay and smart performances by a small, distinguished cast, The Kingfisher is worth a look.
Facts of the Case
Blustery Sir Cecil Warburton (Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady) has spent 50 years regretting not marrying the respectable Lady Evelyn (Wendy Hiller, Murder on the Orient Express). When Cecil learns that Evelyn's husband—and Cecil's old rival—has passed on, he sees this as his last chance to get romance right. Consistent with his typical lack of proper decorum, Cecil invites Evelyn to his country house for tea on the day of her husband's burial. Evelyn accepts, oblivious to the afternoon of surprises in store for her.
Even if The Kingfisher were a failure in every respect, it would, at the very least, be a much appreciated showcase for two supremely gifted and iconic British thespians who were obviously at the top of their games late into their careers. Harrison and Hiller made this film in 1983 which, according to my math, would have put both them both in their early-to-mid 70s. How risky for a movie to rest squarely on actors of their maturity, especially a movie that devotes long stretches of time to walks in the country and talk of romances long since past.
Fortunately, The Kingfisher is in no way, shape, or form a failure. Make no mistake about that. Rather, it's a smart and funny romantic duel between a man and woman who might have had something special at one time, but the details have been clouded by time and two lifetimes of experience.
Is it possible to find love late in life? And what is a woman to think when she receives a proposal of marriage the very day on which she has buried her husband of 50 years? These are the not-so-simple questions that kick off a battle of wits between Harrison and Hiller, who have a delightful time feasting on William Douglas-Home's rich dialogue. His characters bubble with a passion and vivaciousness that is always kept in check by British good manners. Well, almost always. He does allow his characters to stumble around the garden, schnockered on brandy and completely uninhibited. It's a joy watching the prim Hiller and the fussy Harrison have this much fun.
Just as much fun is Cyril Cusack as Hawkins, Cecil's manservant. Cusack's take on the long-suffering butler is to portray him as a put-upon, occasionally nagging wife. When you consider that he has devoted as much time to serving Cecil as Evelyn did to her husband, the approach makes perfect sense. The relationship between Cecil and Hawkins sometimes verges on camp (at one point, Hawkins is chastised as being "a bitch"), but Harrison and Cusack take the reigns and keep it under control.
Cineastes know that George Bernard Shaw handpicked Hiller for the role of Eliza Doolittle in his Pygmalion (a role she recreated in the 1938 film version), and that Rex Harrison will forever be associated with that story's Henry Higgins by way of My Fair Lady. I mention this only to comment on how similar those roles are to the characters Hiller and Harrison portray here. Like Higgins, Cecil is baffled by the fairer sex. At best, he regards women with a sort of remote curiosity. Evelyn, meanwhile, no longer idealizes romance the way the young Eliza once did. Fifty years of marriage have taught her to be much more pragmatic where matters of love are concerned. Little wonder, then, that the pair turn a marriage proposal into an afternoon (and evening and morning) of heated negotiations. The casual observer might be inclined to think Cecil was trying to sell her a car, not his heart.
What becomes of Sir Cecil and Lady Evelyn I wouldn't dare disclose, but even if I did, that's hardly the point. Their game of verbal thrust and parry is not about finding a victor. It's about the thrill of stumbling upon a contentment that's been as elusive as that little kingfisher in Cecil's garden.
Filmed largely outdoors in the sumptuous, sun-bleached meadows and gardens surrounding the extravagant English country house, The Kingfisher should look spectacular. Sadly, the presentation on this package is sorely lacking. The original full-frame aspect ratio is preserved, but the image is grainy from start to finish and marred by scratches and debris. The colors are faded and washed out to the point of distraction. Best I can tell, the audio is Dolby 2.0 Stereo, but it's almost as shoddy as the image. Dialogue is mostly muffled, and the volume is all over the map. Keep your remote control handy, because you're going to be adjusting the sound throughout the film. For a film that relies so heavily on dialogue, this is unfortunate; for it not to include subtitles is a sin. The only extras are cast profiles for Harrison, Hiller, and Cusack.
It's a shame to see such a wonderful little picture like this treated so poorly on DVD. With its list price of $20, I'm afraid I can't recommend this as a purchase unless you're willing to overlook the horrendous video and audio.
BFS is found guilty of abuse and neglect, but this gem of a film is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BFS Video
• Cast profiles
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