It’s surprising that Dodie Smith’s beloved novel hasn’t been adapted for the screen before now (she also wrote 101 Dalmatians). Going in you have that worrying sense of dread that it will be a rosy and sweet story of girly romance. But fortunately it’s the Shakespeare in Love production crew here, and the film maintains a high technical standard as well as a smart, sharp sense of humor that carries us through the slush. It’s told as a memoir by the 17-year-old Cassie (newcomer Romola Garai), growing up in a dank castle in 1930s Suffolk with her loopy writer father (Bill Nighy), her arty stepmum (Tara FitzGerald), colorful older sister (Rose Byrne) and brainy younger brother (Joe Sowerbutts). Then a pair of handsome and eligible Americans (Henry Thomas and Marc Blucas) inherit the estate and ignite a complex love pentagon involving the sisters and their long-time friend Stephen (Henry Cavill).
Yes, a lot of Important Life Lessons ensue, but writer Heidi Thomas and director Tim Fywell never let it become a twee English costume drama. Rather, they inject a current of black comedy and clever wit that keeps us involved in the tangled narrative. Still, some elements are unnecessary–some of the dialogue and voice-over narration are awful, and clichés threaten to swamp every scene and are just about held at bay. Meanwhile, the cast is excellent. Surprisingly, the most moving plot thread involves Garai and Cavill, the newest faces in the cast. They are terrific together–the emotional heart of the film. Meanwhile, Nighy is superb as usual in a much meatier role than even he usually gets. And Byrne makes her character far more three-dimensional than the shallow creature she could have been. All in all, this is a complex, moving tale about dealing with life, not accepting second best and having the courage to both love and be loved. That it avoids the grit and lapses into schmaltz every now and then can almost be forgiven.