“Surely to make a great fool and a spectacle of oneself for the sake of another is a form of martyrdom.”
In the cozy security of 1950s Croydon, England, a wedding is about to take place. Margaret (Lena Headey) is to marry Syl (David Threfall) who lives right next door in their nice upper-middle class neighbourhood. To an outsider, this scenario may sound ideal, or whimsically sweet, but the reality of the match between Margaret and Syl is quite ridiculous. When the film The Summer House (aka The Clothes in the Wardrobe) begins, morose and withdrawn bride-to-be, Margaret (Lena Headey) daydreams about her recent visit to Egypt. Somehow or another, since her return, she’s become engaged to the 40-ish repulsive Syl (David Threfall) who lives with his slightly dotty mother, Mrs. Monro (Joan Plowright). Mrs. Monro is in the habit of discussing things with her Pug–including the upcoming marriage, and while most mothers would heave a sigh of relief at unloading the obnoxious Syl, Mrs. Monroe has concerns about the match.
Margaret’s mother, the divorced Monica (Julie Walters) is thrilled about the marriage. She’s so happy about it, she flagrantly ignores Margaret’s remoteness, and busily, fussily and efficiently hastens Margaret down the aisle.
Into the picture floats the exotic Lili, Monica’s childhood friend from Egypt. Lili (played by the great seasoned actress Jeanne Moreau) and Monica seem unlikely friends–although Lili does manage to make the conventional Monica unstiffen a tiny bit. Lili may be an attention seeker, but she is also an excellent judge of human character, and she immediately sniffs that Margaret really cannot stand Syl. It takes all of Margaret’s power of self-restraint to remain in the same room with him. But why is Margaret marrying Syl? The invitations have been sent, the presents are mounting, and the pressures to conform to social expectations are overwhelming. But aside from all these issues, why would Margaret consign herself to a lifelong sentence with someone she despises?
The Summer House–a BBC production–is based on a trilogy by Alice Thomas Ellis. Ellis is a writer who is particularly skilled in creating female characters who attempt to conform in certain social constructs. In the film’s case, Lili leads the way as the main, enchanting, outspoken and unconventional character. She’s unpredictable and full of tart wisdom that she eagerly shares. Lili forms a strange alliance with the addlepated Mrs. Monro–the pair were rivals at one point for the trivial affections of the late Mr. Munro. Both Lili and Mrs. Munro have reached a stage in life where they don’t particularly care what others think of them, and Mrs. Munro follows Lili’s bad example of misbehaviour in several delightful scenes.
It’s unfortunate that The Summer House is compared to The Enchanted April–as the two films have little in common–except that they both star Joan Plowright. The Summer House has a much darker, wicked edge to it. Fans of Alice Thomas Ellis will recognize the author’s touch in creating a world in which people sometimes do nasty things. While The Summer House is a comedy of manners–it’s also about how good manners can lead us astray. If one is swept along on the tide of social conformity, then it takes an act of drastic social demolition to precipitate change. From director Waris Hussein.