On a crisp March morning in 1932, bride-to-be Dolly (Felicity Jones) is hiding in her bedroom daydreaming of the whimsical summer before, helped along by an ample jug of rum. Long-lost cousins and quirky aunts are arriving to the house every hour, and the downstairs living rooms are buzzing with speculation about the bride's whereabouts. Exasperated by her daughter's absence, Dolly's scatter-brained mother Hetty (Elizabeth McGovern), is at her wit's end, scurrying around the house trying to quell the relatives' suspicions. Hetty has perfected all of the day's arrangements, but her plans can't prepare everyone for the arrival of Dolly's unpredictable former lover, Joseph (Luke Treadaway).
An amiable stroll through the pent-up passions and unrequited yearnings of well-to-do upper-crusters, Donald Rice’s adaptation of Julia Strachey’s 80-year-old novel is exactly old-fashioned as one would expect. Only the most ardent of anglophiles should turn out for this pretty, low-key drama, but to those aching for the next series of Downton Abbey, this will seem like simple cucumber sandwiches on the lawn.
audiences may find themselves searching for a compelling narrative
Centred on the nuptials of Dolly Thatcham (Felicity Jones) and her square-jawed, strait-laced beau, Owen (James Norton), Rice and co-writer Mary Henely-McGill follow, in fractured chronology, the still-simmering longing between Dolly and family friend Joseph Patten (a particularly fine Luke Treadaway). Much of the film consists of Joseph trying to garner a brief moment with Dolly, intermingled with flashback scenes of their early courting and subsequent greenhouse tryst, set in the warm glow of an English countryside summer. In Jones’ hands, Dolly is a dichotomous figure: a feisty woman controlling her destiny in recollection, her wedding-day self edgy and cold, and rather too eager to drink away the day while locked in her room.
It’s to the detriment of Rice’s drama that he fails to offer strong central figures (Owen barely enters the frame until act three); audiences may find themselves searching for a compelling narrative amongst the rest of the cast. The supporting characters, though, are typical, stuffy stereotypes, like the wise matriarch (Elizabeth McGovern) torn between family stability and her daughter’s happiness, the surly younger sister (Ellie Kendrick), the cheeky, leering uncle (Julian Wadham), and a number of assorted background players from both the haughty social elite and the working class. When the inevitable airing of emotions between Dolly and Joseph occurs, it’s oddly a minor scene that makes him look selfish and petulant and her chilly and uncaring.
The film ultimately suffers most from unavoidable comparisons to genre flag-bearers A Room with a View and Remains of the Day, as well as TV benchmarks Brideshead Revisited and Upstairs Downstairs. Rice finds the beats in his story with a firm hand, but the artificially of many of the performances harms the production. It’s a work steeped in the affectations of those born to the manor, but rarely does it achieve any sense of realism. It also looks and feels like a small-screen effort, despite being backed by big screen UK production outfit Goldcrest Pictures (The Iron Lady, Revolutionary Road), And as for those queuing for a fix of upper-class pageantry, you may be somewhat disappointed: the actual wedding ceremony takes place largely unseen, with Rice instead focussing on its preparation and reception.