16 November 2004 | bob the moo
Painted in broad strokes to the detriment of emotional involvement but the focus on the lead two (characters & actors) provide enough high spots to be worth watching
When Frank Gibbons returns from the killing fields of World War I, he rejoins his wife Ethel and together they move with their family into a new house in the suburbs of London. The year is 1919 and everything looks rosy for the future. The future holds joy in the shape of children, marriages and friends however it also holds disappointment with, erm, children, marriages, strikes, death and, tragically, more war. Over the following decades we trace the trials and fortunes of the Gibbons family against the backdrop of a changing Britain.
One could argue that Noel Coward may not have been the best placed to write about the live of an ordinary family but he did it reasonably well in his play from what I am told. In this version though the material is stretched to the point of being simplistic as it attempts to cover far too much ground and emotion to be able to fit it into a running time of just over an hour and a half. The story is interesting enough and the amount going on means it is never really dull but the problem is that we never really get deep enough into the stories to be emotionally sold on any thread or character. It jumps so much that it cannot often allow time for subtle half-measures in the plotting and instead has to make sure that its points are heavy and obvious again taking away from how recognisable the whole affair is. This is not to say that it doesn't have good points, but they come due to consistency in the telling and therefore rely heavily on Frank and Ethel to be core to the telling.
This also means that the film pretty much belongs to Newton and Johnson in the acting stakes. Together they share plenty of quiet moments that show an unspoken hurt or emotion that is more subtle that the events portrayed; they also have a natural chemistry that made me believe that they were a couple and had been for years. The support cast are OK but mostly they are involved in the more extreme plot threads and are forced to ditch patience and subtlety as a result but then people like Mills, Holloway, Walsh, Leggat et al are still interesting enough to be worth watching and none of them give anything like a bad performance, but they pale beside the lead pair.
Overall this is a good film but it is painted in broad strokes across decades and this reduces the emotional impact and involvement that it has. There are moments of course and the story is interesting enough even with its flaws but the film relies heavily on the lead pair. Narrative wise the film is never better than when it is tightly focused on the hearts of Frank and Ethel and acting wise it is dominated by the solid chemistry between Newton and Johnson.