Judge Ben Saylor is waiting for A Rather English Trial Separation.
Roy: What do we call each other?
It's interesting to note how the careers of Albert Finney (Tom Jones) and Tom Courtenay (Doctor Zhivago) have been linked over the course of their decades-long careers. Both of these British actors rose to prominence during the "kitchen sink" realism film movement in the 1960s, Finney with his performance in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Courtenay with his turn in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. When it came time to cast the lead in John Schlesinger's film adaptation of the play Billy Liar, it was Courtenay who got the role—which was originated on the stage by Finney.
The actors' paths would cross again, decades later, in the 1984 film The Dresser. In it, Courtenay reprised his Tony-nominated performance as a harried assistant, and Finney was the actor selected to play opposite him. Both actors were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, although neither took home the prize.
Both actors have received knighthoods; Finney first in 2000, with Courtenay following a year later. Both actors continue to work, with Finney making appearances in The Bourne Ultimatum and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, and Courtenay turning up in The Golden Compass and a recent miniseries of Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit.
It was with this interest in these actors and their history that I eagerly put the 1998 TV film A Rather English Marriage into my DVD player. While the experience didn't quite live up to the anticipation preceding it, the film is still worth watching.
Facts of the Case
Reggie Conyngham-Jervis (Finney), a bombastic former RAF squadron, and Roy Southgate (Courtenay), a more subdued retiree, are thrown together by the near-simultaneous deaths of their wives. A social worker suggests that the two may derive some mutual benefit from living with each other, so Roy moves into Reggie's house. Initially, the two opposites get off to a shaky start, but soon develop a friendship. Reggie becomes distracted, however, when he meets Liz Franks (Joanna Lumley, Absolutely Fabulous), a small business owner who may have ulterior motives for spending time with Reggie.
SPOILERS TO FOLLOW
Things start off somewhat wobbly, with the contrivance that Reggie and Roy's wives die in the same area of the hospital within minutes of one another. The film gets better once the two are living together. At this point in the story, one might expect an Odd Couple-esque comedy, but while Reggie and Roy do have something of an Oscar and Felix dynamic to their relationship, there isn't a whole lot of real friction between them beyond an argument over the use of Reggie's car. This takes some energy out of the film, but screenwriter Andrew Davies (adapting Angela Lambert's novel) compensates by investing each character with inner conflict, which entails guilt over each man's perceived failure as a parent. For Reggie, this takes the form of flashbacks to a horrific accident; for Roy, it is the fact that his son Alan (Sean Murray) is in prison.
Both Reggie and Roy are haunted by their memories, especially of their late wives, and for the most part, the film's flashback sequences are effective, especially a scene where Reggie and Roy dance with each other to "Slow Boat to China" while picturing the same dance with their wives. While Davies and director Paul Seed kind of go overboard on these sequences (there are too many flashbacks of the accident, especially), there is no denying that their incorporation in A Rather English Marriage helps keep the film's tone on a fairly even keel.
Now we come to the Liz portion of the story. Liz is depicted as someone whose motives are arguably ambiguous at first. Sometimes she seems genuinely interested in Reggie, but other times she seems to be leading him on. It isn't until she is told that her business is in danger of closing that she begins to really act like a gold-digger. While this is admittedly more intriguing than marking her as a moocher from the get-go, the scenes between Liz and Reggie aren't as compelling as the ones between Reggie and Roy. However, the argument can certainly be made that the film needs some kind of conflict to propel the narrative in its second and third acts, which these scenes certainly accomplish. The resolution of this storyline also gives us a rare and affecting glimpse at the real Reggie hiding beneath his Squadron Leader bluster. I guess I just wish it didn't come at the expense of Reggie and Roy screentime.
In The Dresser, Finney arguably has the more showy part, as a Shakespearean actor struggling mightily to get through a performance as the title role in King Lear. As his dresser, Courtenay certainly doesn't fade into the scenery, but his role is still, relatively speaking, more low-key than Finney's. With A Rather English Marriage, however, the performances of the two actors are more easily defined. Finney by far gives the broader (sometimes excessively so) performance, but that's demanded of his character; Reggie is a loud, raucous man who acts decades younger than his true age. Roy, on the other hand, is much more reserved and conservative in his temperament. Unlike Reggie, Roy drinks only occasionally, and is seems more content with a quiet night at home than he is carousing at the pub. It's a role to which Courtenay is well suited, and the actor gives a sensitive performance that isn't silly or cloying. The actor's voice has changed since the days of Billy Liar and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner; in The Golden Compass, he uses it to convey his character's wise old man status; in A Rather English Marriage, it sounds a bit frail, an effect of the ravages of time and memory on Roy.
The DVD of A Rather English Marriage is unremarkable from a technical standpoint; I'll bet this didn't look and sound much worse than when it was on TV. There are no subtitles, which makes deciphering some of the dialogue difficult, and also no bonus features.
Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay have done fine work both separately and together. While A Rather English Marriage doesn't quite reach the height of either actor's output, the pairing of these actors is always welcome, and their strong performances and chemistry together ultimately carry the day.
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