Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
, . , , , , , , . Screenplay by , based on the novel by . Cinematography by . Produced by . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .
The first signs of the British class system crumbling in the years leading up to the first World War, after which it would be put through its first major transformation (though would not be, as some have claimed, destroyed) is not a new subject in any medium, having been explored on film numerous times before and since this staid, minor but potent prestige drama (as well as television, it’s what Downton Abbey is about). Director Alan Bridges has himself tackled the subject in his Cannes triumph of 1972, The Hireling, returning with far less subtlety in this adaptation of Isabel Colegate’s novel of the same name.
It’s the autumn of 1913, and a group of aristocrats have gathered at the country estate of Sir Randolph Nettleby (in his final film, he died before its release) for some good old fashioned pheasant hunting. The party are a mixed bag of well mannered toffs who are hiding passionate secrets beneath their linens and lace, including young beauty Olivia ( ) who is married to the older Lord Lilburn ( ) but in love with handsome Lionel Stephens ( ), and Lady Aline Hartlip ( ) whose marriage to a dispirited Lord Gilbert Hartlip ( ) has pushed her into the arms of a German lover with the unwieldy name of Reuben Hergesheimer ( ).
Lord Nettleby’s grandson Ogden () has a pet duck that he is hoping won’t accidentally get shot when the men take to the fields to enjoy their sport, an opportunity for trite metaphor that the film somehow manages to avoid turning into a painful cliché, while his granddaughter Cicely ( ) is being courted by the handsome Hungarian count (what other kind is there) Tibor Rakassyi ( ) and is considering accepting his advances.
Hartlip challenges Stephens to a contest to see who can rack up the most dead birds (and therefore prove the best shot and best example of virile masculinity), while the local villagers, many of whom work at the estate as beaters on the game field, discuss the wisdom of living under the thumb of landowning overseers.
The tension in the air, between rich and poor, privilege and subservience, modern reform and tradition, tightens almost imperceptibly as the hours wear on and the characters increase the difference between what they say and what they mean, until it’s exploded in a tragedy at the end that puts all petty grievances into perspective.
provides comic relief as the animal activist who objects to the barbaric practice of farming live animals only for the fun of killing them, letting a good deal of air into a film that would be airlessly sober without him. It hasn’t a whit of subtlety to it, and that dampens its magic, but the audience is compensated by a conservative running time, intelligent direction and beautifully executed performances.