Film Review: 1st Night

The music of Mozart seems too big for the “book” of this minor-key romantic roundelay, which nevertheless manages to be increasingly, albeit mildly, engaging.

Can a musical that’s almost exclusively scored by the works of Wolfgang Mozart really be called a musical? Can a backstage musical almost entirely set on a gorgeous, sprawling English country estate really be considered a backstage musical? The answer to both questions is yes. And as an artistic conceit this genre hybrid works quite well. But what mutes the appeal of 1st Night is not its bold concept, but its less adventurous execution.

Feeling a little too familiar—and a little too restrained—this romp that never quite romps recalls any number of ensemble comedies set among a bunch of privileged people who get all romantically entangled. Think Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway classic A Little Night Music, itself based on Ingmar Bergman’s uncharacteristically lighthearted Smiles of a Summer Night. This film doesn’t aspire to such lofty heights—but it’s got the DNA: the mistaken identities, missed messages, secret longings, impromptu hook-ups. Throw in the typical backstage musical trappings—artistic differences, technical difficulties, star tantrums and, yes, blossoming romances—and you’ve got more than enough going on. The problem with 1st Night is that with all that’s going on, none of the subplots has the time to evolve into the central storyline—the one we really care about.

That storyline could easily have been the one involving the estate’s owner/host, Sir Adam (Richard E. Grant), a serious opera aficionado who is financing a professional production of Cosi Fan Tutte, with a cast of established singers, others looking to make a name—and Sir Adam himself, in a featured role. Sir Adam is that crazy about opera. He’s also that crazy about his guest conductor Celia (Sarah Brightman), who’s merely fond of him, in a socially acquainted sort of way. Ah, unrequited love.

But the film could have just as easily been all about Nicolette (Mia Maestro), one of Cosi’s two lovely leading ladies, who is being aggressively wooed by her leading man Tom (Julian Ovenden), a dashingly arrogant go-getter who, unbeknownst to Nicolette, has impulsively bet Sir Adam that he can bed her before opening night. This plot device unmistakably evokes the storyline of the Mozart opera—in which two officers wager that they can seduce each other’s fiancées. “Life imitates art,” one observer helpfully points out. One of the smartest things this film does is not make too much of this homage.

Each of these love stories endures its fairly predictable wrong turns and bumps in the road, on the way to a logically happy ending. But neither one develops and deepens in a way that might have gotten us thoroughly invested. Director/co-writer Christopher Menaul is content to lay down the basic dynamics of these two couplings, while giving equal time to Cosi’s distracted director Philip (Oliver Dimsdale) and his feeling-neglected girlfriend, Tamsin (Emma Williams)—the show’s co-leading lady—who is beginning to suspect that her guy is dallying with one of the other singers. But which one, exactly? Meanwhile, there’s also the rocky romance between the estate’s hunky-but-virginal groundskeeper Eric (Jack Walker) and love-‘em-and-leave-‘em singer Debra (Susannah Fielding)—a one-night stand that leaves poor Eric in a permanent funk.

Menaul rather deftly weaves all four love stories into and around the increasingly tense opera rehearsals. And that tension adds a welcome vibrancy to the film’s many full-throated musical passages, all of which come off as loose, spontaneous and improvised as rehearsals should be—especially if they are rehearsals of a production that director Philip wants to be “kinetic” and “electric” and “sizzling.” Philip doesn’t want his performers just “standing around” and singing their arias. Even so, he’s more surprised than we are when the “sizzle” involves a fair amount of groping, face-slapping and storming offstage.

But even as they italicize some of the characters’ relationship issues, the opera excerpts provide more contrast to the offstage storylines than the filmmakers may have intended. When these tenors and sopranos aren’t belting out their emotions in song, they tend to keep their feelings contained, tiptoeing through their courtships like the well-mannered Brits they are. Which is fine, but Menaul doesn’t have the eye for the subtle-but-telling Merchant-Ivory-type moment, and his cast, while quite capable, doesn’t give him much in the way of nuance. Indeed, the most memorable presences here are Grant, whose Sir Adam default setting is animatedly neurotic, and Brightman, whose somewhat stiff, forcibly chipper demeanor is better suited to the stage. On the evidence available here, she is not a natural film actress.

With its attractive cast and beautiful surroundings (both indoors and out), 1st Night has enough going for it that it would get and probably hold your attention if you encountered it on BBC TV some Sunday night. And it does get more involving as its romantic entanglements get more, well, entangled. And it isn’t even a problem that most of its love stories end happily, or that even the ones that don’t offer some sort of consolation prize. But once this truly pleasant film is over, you won’t find yourself thinking about it a lot. There just isn’t enough sizzle there—nor enough steak.