Perhaps capitalising on the current success of small-screen Downton Abbey, co-writer and director Donald Rice adapts Julia Strachey’s 1932 novella for cinema, a period piece about English restraint and love lost last summer. With the critical narrative information delayed until the film’s final moments, it’s a waiting game for the audience, not unpleasurably spent watching the gorgeous costumes and eccentric behaviour of the family and friends of an anxious bride.
About to be married is Dolly Thatcham (Felicity Jones), a young woman who refuses to come down from her elegant bedroom and join the guests who have gathered in her family’s country mansion on a cold and grey December day. Downstairs, Dolly’s bored and erratic mother (Elizabeth McGovern) tries to keep proceedings in line, preventing handsome Joseph (Luke Treadaway) from seeing Dolly before her wedding. It becomes quickly evident that Joseph is desperately in love with Dolly, and she with him, but neither have the ability to make that one gesture that will take them away from the gloom of the day and the impending union of Dolly to another man for whom she seems to have no feelings. Flashbacks, infused with the golden glow of a beautiful English summer, reveal the romance that occurred between the two young lovers earlier that year, memories of which Dolly and Joseph seem unable to shake. And when we are not watching the romance and willing the young couple to do something – anything for goodness sake – there are comic diversions a-plenty as the odd collection of guests reveal their very English foibles.
As Rice’s first feature, it’s a thoughtful attempt to capture the essence of Strachey’s slight tale of upper class manners, but the decision to withhold the most critical information until the end of the telling means much of the film is a mere diversion, filled with deaf uncles, silly vicars, naughty boys, drunken young fops, humble servants, and judgmental friends quick with a withering comment. Some of these characters – like Dolly’s desperate younger sister Kitty (wonderfully played by Ellie Kendrick) and nosey family friend David Dakin (Mackenzie Crook) – provide much needed energy for the wait until two o’clock when vows are to be exchanged, but they are still just a diversion. It’s the main dating game we want to see and whilst Jones and – in particular Treadwell – offer up lovely performances, there’s just not enough story to sustain the journey, more melancholic than cheerful.