Directed by Alastair Reid. Featuring Natascha McElhone, James Frain, Charles Dance, Parker Posey, Samantha Bond, Valentine Pelka.
This is what romantic comedies should be. Two attractive, appealing leading actors with genuine chemistry, a host of droll secondary characters, hate at first sight and a sparklingly funny script.
Kate Beckenham played beautifully by the wonderfully expressive Natascha McElhone is a London barrister who is on the rise. Engaged to be married to Graham (Valentine Pelka), she has a growing practice and seems happy in her somewhat strait-laced and conservative life. Not an easy feat considering that being a female barrister isn't easy in the incredibly conservative, male-dominated English legal system. Living with her wilder and younger sister Ellen (Amy Phillips), she first encounters the irreverent Jack Sullivan (James Frain). Jack is also a London barrister, but a hotshot with a reputation for having never lost a single case. Their second encounter is in the courtroom and while more formal and stilted - it is as funny as their first encounter and we learn more about Jack's incorrigible nature.
As fate would have it, not only does this bewigged pair seem destined to encounter one another time and time again - they end up being opposing counsel on a high profile, glitzy and vaguely tawdry case that captures the attention of the media. In a story with shades of the Anna Nicole Smith saga, Parker Posey plays Mrs Mirella Burton, a loud, tackily attractive young woman who met the elder Mr Burton when he was seventy five and she was but twenty one years of age. As a result of his marriage with Mirella, Mr Burton leaves all of his estate (to the value of £15 million) to Mirella and not to his only son Gerald Burton (Charles Dance). Gerald Burton, via Kate's instructing solicitor Jane (Samantha Bond) engages Kate to be his counsel while Mrs Burton engages Jack Sullivan.
The case turns on Mr Burton's state of mind at the time he drafted his will. Kate's contention is that he was as confused, lonely, old man tricked by a young woman into denying the rightful heir of his inheritance. Jack's argument is that Mr Burton was in love and was fully aware of his actions and the consequences and thus the characters are given free rein to explore the issue of matters of the heart.
Words fly, gazes lock and tempers flare as Kate and Jack battle it out in the courtrooms. They encounter each other everywhere - cricket matches, outside the temple where Kate is scheduled to be married, mooting dinners, outside their chambers and each time they meet, there is absolutely no doubt that they are attracted to one another. Kate fights the attraction, both infuriated and fascinated by Jack at the same time.
James Frain plays Jack as an arrogant, carelessly appealingly young man who manages to be incredibly charming and funny despite his cockiness. It would be so easy for an audience to dislike such a smug character, but there is a genuine warmth in Frain's portrayal and he appears to be having a ball with the role. Having first seen Frain as the awkward yet appealing Forney Hull in "Where the Heart Is", I was startled to see him in such a sexily charismatic role but found him completely convincing.
The secondary characters are equally wonderful. Kate's instructing solicitor Jane is hilarious - particularly the sequence in which she gets into labour and threatens to say awful, unforgivable things to Kate. Graham is something of a cliche as he plays the faithful, patient but unsexy fiance we have come to expect in romantic comedies. Nonetheless, he has some very funny lines as well. Jack's opinionated but loving father is a real gem dispensing fashion tips while renovating Jack's trendy London apartment.
The judges in the court scenes are very droll and Kate seems to trip over eccentric characters wherever she goes - the drunken lawyers at the moot are a hoot. The only element that jarred a little was the discovery of the true character of Gerald Burton - it was a little startling and not really foreshadowed, but this is only a minor quibble.
All in all, this is a wonderful and entertaining gem of a movie. Somewhat obscure, it is definitely worth watching and some of the scenes had me laughing out loud. For those of us who are tired of the completely implausible world of Ally McBeal, Natasha McElhone is very convincing as a determined female lawyer who doesn't wear short skirts.
Film picture quality is 8 out of 10 - VHS quality - Sound is perfect
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