It's easy to be put off by the sound of Tim Fywell's take on Dodie Smith's novel. Especially since a quick chomp on the plot synopsis (teenage girl comes of age in '30s England while trying to save her family from disaster) leaves a queasy Dirty Dancing-meets-Brideshead Revisited taste in the mouth. Don't spit it out too quickly, though, because beneath the overfamiliar trappings is a tasty core of fine performances and a gentle, self-mocking and sly sense of humour.
Cassandra Mortmain (newcomer Romola Garai) is stuck in the English countryside with her eccentric family. Their writer dad (Bill Nighy) brought them to live in a castle when his first book became a huge success, but he hasn't scribbled a word since. Then, just as the family enter the final stages of financial meltdown, along come two rich Americans (Henry Thomas and Marc Blucas). Love is fallen into and out of, there are plenty of merry japes and miserable moments, and the whole thing ends up with Cassandra a lot older and wiser and her family... Well, let's simply say that things change.
The cast's a hotch-potch of familiar telly faces and oddball newcomers. Some of them pan out, some of them don't: Tara Fitzgerald's appearance as Cassandra's dotty, nudity-prone stepmum irks, as does Henry `Elliott in ET' Thomas' turn as a lovesick Yank. But the majestic Nighy offers up a sublime performance as blocked writer James Mortmain, hovering just on the right side of caricature as he makes an eccentric powder keg of a failed artist into a touching, almost heroic figure.
It's Romola Garai who makes the story live and breathe, however, taking the role of dowdy, bookish Cassandra and shocking her to life with wit and colour. A few more parts like this and Kate Winslet should start looking over her shoulder.
Breathing new life and depth into the stalwart themes of love and growing up, this emerges as wry and gentle, sweet and enjoyable. A British film that's well worth watching.