Writer-director Wilde skilfully captures the most jarring truths of British social relationships in this insightful, creepy drama. But it's perhaps too quietly tense and ice cold to ever engage us.
Alice (Ehle) is throwing a 21st birthday party for her son Jack (Wells), who hasn't been home for three years. Jack's sister Elyssa (Warner) is in a world of her own, while Alice's new husband (Baladi) is straining to bridge a rather yawning emotional gulf. Flash back a decade to the family's upper middle class idyll, with convivial dad Jim (Huston) and much more open-hearted young Jack and Elyssa (Duncan and Knight). Even Aunt Brede (Styler) seemed more relaxed back then. So what happened to turn them all into such annoying adults?
With its emphasis on British reticence and the stiff upper lip culture, the film relies on the superbly understated performances of the cast. And everyone is excellent, although you can feel the cast struggling a bit with the huge emptiness in the script--knowing glances and surly glares fill the spaces that should contain conversation. These people just refuse to talk to each other about anything.
As the parallel timelines progress, we keep waiting to learn what horrible thing took place that caused all of this dysfunction. But there's a nagging feeling that it's simply due to the time and place, the fact that these are the idle rich--aimless people who, without a sense of purpose in life, just get on each others' nerves. The film is loaded with awkward interaction, interrupted communication and blind selfishness masquerading as polite social contact. It's pretty painful to watch.
And also frighteningly true to life. The main problem is that we have virtually no sympathy for anyone. Ehle generates a bit of pathos as the mother hen yearning to bring her family together. And Huston is the most engaging character by far, with his lively eyes and mischievous actions. But Jack is spiteful and Elyssa is freaky, so Wells and Warner never remotely earn our concern or interest. On the other hand, it's this reluctance to play it safe that makes the film worth watching.
New visitors, have a look at a video clip of Alpha Male we've posted before.