Relative Values



UK 2000
director – Eric Styles
script – Paul Rattigan, Michael Walker, adapted from the play by Noel Coward
cinematographer – Jimmy Dibling
stars – Julie Andrews, Stephen Fry, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Sophie Thompson, William Baldwin
89 minutes

“Earth,” J G Ballard once remarked, “is the alien planet.” Watch Relative Values and you may well agree. Or rather, don’t watch Relative Values, as there must be something better you can do with 89 minutes of your life. This is a film in name only. It might just pass muster as a bit of filler for BBC1 on a late Sunday afternoon, but the only kind of people who could conceivably find it tolerable or amusing – pensioners and Noel Coward fans – aren’t exactly noted for their cinemagoing habits.

The absurd press-notes announce that this is supposedly “A comedy of manners. It’s an age old story – what do you do if you disapprove of the girl your son wishes to marry? Picture the scenario – 1950s England. Well-born English gentleman, the Earl of Marshwood telephones his mother with news of his engagement. Her heart leaps for joy. But there’s more – the woman he is planning to marry is an American actress called Miranda Frayle! Well, you can imagine the consternation this causes both above and below stairs at the very stately Marshwood House…”

The same quantities of wit, originality, skill and imagination have been applied to the making of the film as to the production of those notes – i.e. zero. Eric Styles’ direction would have seemed laughably old-fashioned during the period the film is set, let alone half a century later. And while Noel Coward’s play is probably good stuff by the standards of amateur-dramatics, its limitations are laid starkly bare when plastered across the width of the cinema screen. As adapted by Rattigan and Walker, Coward’s concerns seem hopelessly dated – the contrived mechanics of the plot’s development aren’t worth recounting in detail here, except to say that they hinge upon the most absurd ‘problems’ of class and status, conveyed with the broadest and most predictable of strokes.

Relative Values manages to patronise just about all of its characters, but its treatment of one in particular, a maid called Alice, is staggeringly condescending. As brought to charmless life by Anwen Carlisle, Alice spends almost all of her screen time with her mouth gaping open in a rictus of bovine incomprehension. On this evidence, Carlisle is talenteless, but Andrews, Tripplehorn, Baldwin and Firth have at least some interesting work among their back catalogue, and on paper, the assembled cast makes for impressive reading. But, sadly for both Eric Styles and the audience, film relies on celluloid, not paper, and only Stephen Fry emerges with his reputation undamaged – mainly because he’s the only one who seems to realise what a heap of tawdry junk he’s found himself cast into. He brings a wry dignity to his role as the butler that the film does not deserve. At one stage he remarks “I’ve got better things to do than sit in cinemas!”, and nobody could blame him if he’s ever had the misfortune to endure trash as depressingly fatuous as Relative Values.

For the many other films as bad as this (and worse) check out our Diorama of Dishonour

by Neil Young