In the theater, people tend to break into applause when stars they’ve paid a lot of money to see appear onstage. That always feels premature and a little parochial even though it’s just an obvious display of affection and respect. But, if we’re being honest, they haven’t done anything yet. “Cheerful Weather for the Wedding,” a flavorless movie set in the early 1930s, has a moment like that. For the opening minutes, members of the bride’s well-heeled English family have been in a state of stress. They’re mostly young and possess an uncanny ability to natter on about almost nothing — chiefly, why hasn’t the bride come down, since it’s almost time to head to the church?
When the bride’s mother blasts through the front door in slow motion, the nattering stops. The slow motion and medium close-up of her sailing into the house are just like that applause, only more desperate. For the mother isn’t Elaine Stritch, Glenn Close, Phylicia Rashad, or Chita Rivera. It’s Elizabeth McGovern, who, with all due respect, is none of those women. McGovern is always a pleasure to watch. But the spontaneous-applause treatment creates the expectation that the drama of her introduction will pay off in a grand actorly display.
Instead, the mother of the bride turns out to be as clenched and high-strung as everyone else in this movie, leaving one to conclude that the fanfare over her entrance owes less to the McGoverness of Elizabeth McGovern than to the afterglow of her day job. McGovern is on “Downton Abbey,” which this movie mildly echoes (at least two actors sound like Maggie Smith). The whole thing feels like exploitation of McGovern and her show, whose third season is nearly upon us. On the series, she plays an American who has merely married Englishly. Here she has to do the accent and the blithely uptight demeanor, too.
Everyone spends the first half of “Cheerful Weather” waiting for Dolly (Felicity Jones) to come down for her wedding, including Joseph (Luke Treadaway), the slight, smart, antsy young man she’d loved up just the summer before. In the ensuing months, she agreed to wed Owen (James Norton), a sporty fellow who intends to move her to Argentina. Now, she’s suffering a case of potential buyer’s remorse. The film features broken flashbacks of Dolly and Joseph’s summer together. It drowns in coincidences and busywork: Has anyone seen the ring? How will that stain come out of the dress? Can you put a blind servant in a movie about emotional deception and have her not See the Truth?
The movie deploys a lot of single-note snipers (one woman’s been pecking at her husband for so long that he’s now a carcass with glasses). What it doesn’t have is drama or wisdom or comedy or heat, something to temper the banalities. The director Donald Rice worked with Mary Henely-Magill to adapt Julia Strachey’s 80-year-old housebound novel and has pumped it full of tight smiles, theatrical staging, and exclamatory line deliveries. He needs actors who can elevate the emotional stakes. That, or the actors need a director who can get them there. Otherwise, Dolly’s decision, even once another character defiantly explains it, doesn’t make you any sadder for her.
There is one bright spot. Ellie Kendrick plays Dolly’s silly, breathlessly romantic little sister, Kitty. It was bold of Strachey to write a character whose name and entire personality are stolen from the greatest Kitty anywhere: Kitty Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice.” Kendrick just goes for it. She has a mop of dark hair and does 90 percent of the nattering. She’s Kitty Bennet if Jane Austen had give Kitty a Ritalin problem. The rest of the movie could use a little of whatever she’s on.Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.