A Chorus of Disapproval

This is disappointing. Here's a movie featuring two terrific British actors in their prime, joining forces on-screen for the first time in an adaptation of a well-regarded play. When A Chorus of Approval was released in 1989, Jeremy Irons was hot on the heels of the greatest performance of his career (a dual role in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers) and just a couple of years away from his Oscar-winning turn in Reversal of Fortune. Anthony Hopkins was on the verge of attaining international stardom, and would soon wow audiences with stunning performances in The Silence of the Lambs, The Remains of the Day and Howard's End. Alas, this shrill, tonally-conflicted film fails to provide these two esteemed thespians with a sufficient outlet for their respective talents.

The film (based on a play by the prolific Alan Ayckbourn) tells the story of Guy Jones (Irons), an accountant and young widower whose life is as plain and dull as his name. After his employers transfer him to an office in a small British town, Guy begins to feel the urge to find something to do in his spare time. He auditions for a community theatre production of The Beggar's Opera, and impresses director Dafydd Ap Llewellyn (Hopkins) with his rich baritone voice. Guy is quickly accepted as a member of the troupe, which pleases him to no end. Guy is also pleased to discover that most of the women in the group are intensely attracted to him, including the sultry Fay (Jenny Seagrove, Local Hero) and the mild-mannered Hannah (Prunella Scales, Fawlty Towers). Fun fact: Hannah just so happens to be Dafydd's wife.

Ayckbourn wrote the stage play as a giddy farce that draws heavily on the themes of its opera-within-a-play, but director Michael Winner (best known for grim Charles Bronson thrillers like Death Wish, The Mechanic and Chato's Land) seems uncertain about whether he wants to play the film as comedy or tragedy. He never decides, and ends up delivering scenes of both strained comic hijinks and mood-killing gloom. Unfortunately, both sides of the movie seem awfully forced.

Part of the problem is that Irons doesn't seem to know what to do with the ever-changing Guy Jones. Initially, Guy is nervous, polite and quiet, but he begins attaining confidence as he gets deeper into the rehearsal process (and gets an invited into an ever-increasing number of bedrooms). He shifts from likable outcast to devious scoundrel as the film progresses, but the writing is so schizophrenic that Irons struggles to sell it. We're meant to be surprised and ultimately appalled by Guy's behavior, but we care so little about him that the movie never achieves its intended effect.

It doesn't help that Winner is – to put it bluntly - a bad director. His handling of the screwball-esque moments is nothing short of appalling, and he never finds a way to generate any tension in the relationships between his characters despite all the double-crossing and adultery and broken hearts and conflicting motivations. The rehearsal scenes are meant to be amusingly messy, but it's less amusing when so much of that amateurish messiness extends to the film itself.

The film is a dud, but two performances prevent it from being a complete waste of time. The first is Hopkins' turn as Dafydd, an energetic, hunchbacked ball of anger whose thunderous proclamations account for the film's most entertaining moments. Hopkins' best scene comes late in the film, when he turns his demeanor down five notches and delivers a quiet rebuke to Irons. The other worthwhile performance comes from Prunella Scales, who's so heartbreakingly downtrodden as Dafydd's unfulfilled wife that she feels as if she's in another movie altogether. Somewhere in here, there's a fine, funny, wrenching film about Dafydd and Hannah's complicated marriage. Winner never finds it, but that's largely because he isn't really looking for it. Permit me to add my voice to the chorus disapproving of this disjointed mess.

A Chorus of Disapproval

Rating: ½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Year: 1989