A Rather English Marriage (1998)

“You are a prissy, tight-arsed bastard, aren’t you, Southgate?”

The made-for-British television film A Rather English Marriage is an enjoyable character study of two widowers thrown together by circumstance. Reggie Conyngham-Jervis (Albert Finney) and Roy Southgate (Tom Courtenay) have a great deal in common, and yet they are totally opposite. Reggie and Southgate, both WWII veterans are both widowed when their wives die just moments apart in the same hospital. While Southgate is devastated by the loss of his wife, on the other hand, Reggie–or Squadron Leader, as he prefers to be called, seems to be barely touched by the event. Southgate returns to his modest little house, with its shrine of photographs of his wife, Grace in her youth, and Reggie returns to The Cedars, the large country mansion he shared with his wife–the long-suffering Mary (Ursula Howells).

rather english marriageAs the two men adjust to life without their wives, a social worker comes up with the idea of bringing the two men together in their grief to help each other and share the household burden. This seems to be a great idea to Reggie who now seems to think he has an unpaid servant in Southgate. Reggie is very comfortable with maintaining the hierarchal role of Squadron Leader to Southgate’s servant/batman/sergeant. And what does Southgate get from the arrangement? Well Reggie overlooks the fact that Southgate has his own home and seems to imagine that Southgate should be grateful for the opportunity to live (for once in his life anyway) in a splendid country mansion.  There’s one great scene when Reggie is waxing on about the glory days on WWII and Southgate rather timidly marvels at the fact that he’s finally met ‘one of those’ people who looked at WWII–‘the best years of their lives.’ The impression is that Reggie’s WWII was a very different sort of experience for Southgate. 

The film draws its characters sharply within the first few scenes. Reggie is bombastic, selfish and insensitive, superficially and happily blustering his way through life as he tramples on the meek and mild-mannered. Southgate, on the other hand, is a bit of a dark horse, and flashbacks reveal slivers of both men’s pasts. While Southgate rather slavishly adored his wife, claiming they had sex every day of their married life, there are hints, mainly from Southgate’s incarcerated son, that things were not as Southgate says.

Within days of moving in together, the men basically establish a relationship with one another that replicates the relationship they had with their wives. Southgate becomes the housewife and Reggie stuffs himself at dinner and then goes off to the pub to get drunk at night. The roles these men play with each other undergoes a shift when golddigger Liz Franks (Joanna Lumley) arrives on the scene….

All three of the main characters give knock-out performances. Joanna Lumley as Liz Franks is a middle-aged woman who knows the years are slipping away and sees Reggie as the last opportunity to grab wealth. Hints of homosexuality in the relationship between Reggie and Southgate remain unexplored, and while the question hangs unanswered at the film’s conclusion, it’s an unimportant issue that’s transcended by devotion and friendship. From director Paul Seed and a marvelous screenplay from Andrew Davies. The story is based on the novel by Angela Lambert

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