No one plays damp old ladies like the English. No one does ripe old dames like the French. Casting the English stalwart Joan Plowright and the French firecracker Jeanne Moreau in the same torpid London suburb is what lifts The Summer House (Samuel Goldwyn, unrated) out of its confines as a slight, rain-spattered BBC production and turns it into an unexpectedly jolly lesson in what two great old theatrical broads can do to liven up even the murkiest, artiest domestic drama.
Ironically, the wettest soul in this odd and oddly engaging story (based on the novel The Clothes in the Wardrobe by Alice Thomas Ellis and directed with keen appreciation for gradations of grayness by veteran TV-movie maker Waris Hussein) is the youngest girl with the rosiest complexion. Lena Headey (who shows some gumption as a romance-seeking chambermaid in The Remains of the Day) plays Margaret, owner of the dowdiest sweaters in 1959 England. Engaged — hard to fathom how — to her graceless next-door neighbor, Syl (David Threlfall), all Margaret wants to do is become a nun. That way, she can devote the rest of her life to reflecting on an erotically charged six months she recently spent in Egypt, during which time Something Dark happened. All Syl wants to do is live with his widowed Mum, Mrs. Monro (Plowright). All Mum wants to do is talk to her dog.
The catatonic Margaret acquiesces to the wedding preparations managed by her mother, Monica (Julie Walters, frumped up to near unrecognizability from her starring role a decade ago in Educating Rita). Luckily for all concerned, Monica has invited her old school friend Lili (Moreau) for a visit.
Lili is a pistol. She’s supposed to be half English and half Egyptian, but she is, in fact, all Moreau — dispensing sexual wisdom with an arched eyebrow and musing about Syl: ”I wonder if he wears lace panties? Egyptian men don’t as a rule, but the British are a breed apart.” She recognizes in a blink that Margaret shouldn’t marry the boy next door — so, for that matter, does Mrs. Monro — and Lili and Mrs. M (who were once less chummy, round about the time the former seduced the latter’s husband, now deceased) have a bang-up time one evening getting drunk and dishing. So what if all the flashbacks to Egypt flicker dusty and false? So what if Lili’s plan for stopping the wedding is a nutty stretch? Give me a movie where Plowright and Moreau knock back whiskey and giggle any day, and let young brides take notes on what it’s like to gulp down life. B