Something like deja vu takes hold during the opening shots of Donald Rice's debut feature, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. With the insistent, urgent push of orchestral strings in the background, he offers up establishing shots of a bucolic English country manor, early 20th-century automobiles, and a bell ringing down in the servants' hall. That feeling of anticipation rising in many viewers' chests may be their hearts readying themselves for the tense post-Victorian drama of the popular TV series Downton Abbey, which is what that opening rather too directly recalls.
What follows seems just as aimed at a shared audience, with its lush period settings, passive-aggressive wit and even Elizabeth McGovern turning up to play, as she does on Downton, the mother of a family seemingly always poised just on the edge of social disaster. (Her daughters, in another Downton echo, possess a remarkable flair for the dramatic.)
The titular wedding is that of older daughter Dolly Thatcham (Felicity Jones), and as the extended family gathers at the house for the happy occasion, she is holed up in her room, being dressed by her ladies' maid, getting drunk on rum and reading Tolstoy's Family Happiness, a title as ironic to her own situation as it was to the author's story.
The primary cause for her anxiety arrives in the form of Joseph (Luke Treadaway), a handsome young professor with whom Dolly had a fling during the preceding summer. But he left town at the end of the season, and Mrs. Thatcham sent Dolly off for a continental vacation, where she met — and quickly became engaged to — family friend Owen. He's sturdy, steadfast and, it's suggested, just a little bit dull. Dolly's heart is with the more romantic Joseph, but he's absent and unreliable; his feeble attempts at emotional sabotage on her wedding day are far too little and way too late.
This poorly timed romance is the drama that drives the film, and yet Joseph and Dolly have but two present-day scenes together. Their summer dalliance is sketched out in dreamy flashbacks, with cinematographer John Lee giving these sequences the golden glow of idealized memory. But with so little interaction during the bulk of the movie, Rice's story, adapted from a 1932 novella by Julia Strachey, ends up spending as much time on the kooky antics of the family before the wedding.
Dolly's sister Kitty (Ellie Kendrick) is starved for attention and looking forward to trying to woo one of two handsome twins expected at the party. Friend Evie (Zoe Tapper) has her eye on an older man, Uncle Bob (Julian Wadham), a religious man with a way with the ladies that doesn't quite match his clerical collar.
The put-upon David Dakin (Mackenzie Crook) and his sniping wife, Nancy (Fenella Woolgar), want to be anywhere other than here, and with anyone other than their fireworks-obsessed terror of a son. (To say nothing of each other.) There's also a deaf old man who constantly misunderstands anything shouted his way; sex-obsessed teen boys; and a stuffy matriarch, Aunt Bella (Barbara Flynn), whose primary purpose (paging Maggie Smith) is to scowl and make catty remarks.
There are two different movies going on here. The circus of the family gathering is an acerbic, chaotic comedy, barreling forward with sarcastic bons mot and the occasional small explosion — not emotional outbursts, mind you, but literal explosions courtesy the Dakins' mischievous spawn. The rest is a wistful romance, with Dolly getting quietly drunk upstairs as Joseph pines for her below.
Rice seems intent on blending the two into a bittersweet romantic comedy, and in one well-executed scene just before Dolly is to leave for the church, he beautifully combines a touch of slapstick with an emotional awkwardness that is both funny and affecting. Unfortunately, for the rest of the film, those forces refuse to mesh.
The comic relief, an attempt to buoy the sinking feeling of Dolly and Joseph's difficulties, steals away the emotional weight of their story. The dominance of the madcap side of the film's split personality lays an airy veneer over Dolly and Joseph's woes, making them seem inconsequential — as unsubstantial as an observation about wedding-day weather.