It would be difficult to imagine a film reaping greater benefit from the sudden outbreak of Downton Abbey Fever than Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, a period British drama set in a large aristocratic home, a film even courteous enough to include Elizabeth McGovern in the matriarchal role. But the film is bound to suffer in comparison with that acclaimed series—primarily because of director Donald Rice’s decision to eschew the Downton¬-style drollery and wit of the first act in order to focus on the rather less compelling romance at the center. Stars Felicity Jones and Luke Treadaway are charming leads, but we keep waiting for Rice to turn the movie back over to the supporting players.
The time is Christmas, 1932. It is the wedding day of Dolly Thatcham (Jones), and the Thatcham house is a-flutter with visiting relations and friends of the family. Among them is Joseph Patten (Treadaway), invited by Dolly for reasons known only to her; the old friends had a fling the previous summer, and her quick decision to marry another man would seem to imply that it didn’t end well. But the invite to Joseph may mean that she’s reconsidering her nuptials; the way she keeps pulling on that bottle of rum from behind her locked bedroom door is another indication.
These opening scenes are the film’s best, as Rice shuffles his big, busy cast through the pre-wedding lunch and turns them loose on each other. He’s got a crisp, clean directorial style, and a good ear for snappy patter; he’s also been blessed with a terrific ensemble. Mackenzie Crook (from the original Office) blazes as a horn-rimmed twit, while Fenella Woolgar is a scene-swiping comic dynamo. Barbara Flynn is a feisty, haughty treat as dizzy old Aunt Bella, and the lovely Zoe Tapper imbues the role of Dolly’s best friend Evie with a jaded wisdom and gin-soaked charm.
And Jones, unsurprisingly, is terrific. The role could easily come off as a mopey killjoy, but she has got this woman’s soul figured out; when Evie sighs, “He’s lovely, your husband to be,” Jones figures out a marvelously specific way to reply “I know,” and you can tell by the way the words curl across her lips that “lovely” just isn’t quite good enough. The actress puts the character’s fear and hesitation across beautifully, yet steels when she must—the turn she takes when she finally comes face to face with her inconvenient guest has an electric charge.
But a little bit of that would go a long way, and there’s just too much of their lost romance, and mournful resignation of its loss, in the film’s back hour. Their summer romance is seen in sun-kissed flashbacks, while the winter wedding is given a colder, desaturated look, the color now having drained from their lives. The suspense over whether either of them will attempt to make it right is real, and sharply rendered; you just wish they hadn’t turned the entire picture over to it. Still it’s hard to get too snitty about the picture—Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is filled with pretty people, gorgeous costumes, swoony writing, and frisky playing. There’s an awful lot in it to embrace.