Relative Values

UK/USA 2000

Reviewed by David Jays


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

The Marshwood estate, England, 1954. Felicity, Countess of Marshwood, awaits the return of her son, the Earl of Marshwood, and his fiancée, a Hollywood star called Miranda Frayle. Felicity fears that Miranda may be unsuitable; her suspicions are confirmed when her personal maid Moxie reveals that Miranda is her long-estranged younger sister. Together with her bachelor friend Peter and her butler Crestwell, Felicity pretends that Moxie has come into an inheritance, thus allowing her to join the family at the dinner table. Moxie's relationship to Miranda will remain secret.

During the evening, Miranda spins squalid stories of her English childhood (including the supposed death of her alcoholic sister). Moxie, irate, finally reveals her identity. Meanwhile, Miranda's co-star and former lover Don Lucas arrives to win her back and cracks appear in the engagement. The next morning Miranda and Don leave and peace is restored at Marshwood.


Even in 1951, when it premiered on the London stage, Relative Values appeared old-fashioned. Only five years later Grace Kelly was to marry into European royalty, yet Noël Coward's play wrings its hands at social divisions threatened with dissolution. The screenplay by actors Paul Rattigan and Michael Walker cuts Coward's notorious closing speech, a toast "to the final inglorious disintegration of the most unlikely dream that ever troubled the foolish heart of man - Social Equality!" But an antediluvian snobbery nonetheless stipples this slight movie.

In this environment of hairbreadth social distinctions, the difference between lady's maid and secretary-companion is infinitesimal yet absolute. Sophie Thompson's tremulous maid and Stephen Fry's butler crave a world in which everyone knows their place - in their case, perching on the very edge of the Countess' sofa.

The only argument against the rigidly class-bound dimension of Coward's play is implicitly contained in the choice of Julie Andrews to play the Countess. Celebrated as a nanny in Mary Poppins (1964) and a governess in The Sound of Music (1965), here Andrews finally establishes herself among the aristocracy. A gracious vision in blue and green chiffon, she deploys a careworn smile as she sweetly campaigns against her son's engagement.

The design is squintingly bright and sunny: ox-blood walls in the kitchen and drawing room are the closest director Eric Styles gets to hinting at the ugly human passions bristling beneath the polite surfaces. Otherwise, Styles prefers to focus sympathetically on female tears - it is her shimmering, watery profile that redeems Miranda, the aspiring movie-star fiancée of the Countess' son.

As often in cinematic raids on theatre, the pleasures are in the performances. Sophie Thompson gives Moxie an almost operatic dither and Colin Firth plays the Countess' cherubic and mischievous confidant Peter in camp little cravats, his confirmed bachelor status established by some additions to the screenplay ("The fleet is in town, and I hate to disappoint").

Early in his career Coward relished shady ladies who married into the stuffy aristocracy, but by the time he wrote Relative Values his sympathies had congealed. Jeanne Tripplehorn plays Miranda like a sultry Jane Russell, a louche brunette travelling in a whoosh of fast cars and scarlet lipstick - unlike her sedate hosts who only leave their stately home for church on Sunday. Where she has a confident and knowing relationship with mirrors, Moxie regards her reflection with terror as she is made up for dinner. For her, impersonation - she has to pretend she's come into an inheritance to expose her sister Miranda - is an ordeal of displacement that only the brazen can achieve.

Dreaming of Joseph Lees, Styles' debut, also explored fraught personal relationships in the 50s, but it is still hard to see why this material attracted him. Perhaps he was lured by its backhanded tribute to the strange potency of cheap movies. Here it is only Alice, the button-eyed Welsh maid (Anwen Carlisle), who understands what is truly happening. She spends her leisure time sitting "in the Odeon, sucking sweets and gaping at a lot of nonsense" and refuses to believe that the passion depicted between Miranda and her co-star Don in such films as A Kiss in the Dark doesn't slip into real life. And she is, of course, quite right.

In this Alice is like the inquisitive housemaid in Coward's Blithe Spirit who unwittingly propels the narrative. David Lean's film, together with Brief Encounter (both 1945), remain the most winning versions of Coward's plays. Here the servants behave like a film audience, gazing through the windows as Miranda and Don launch into a fight scene by the pool. They, like the girl guides hiding out in the shrubbery to glimpse their idols, attest to the appeal of big-screen gawping, while all around pay homage to the masquerade of a pre-democratic Britain.


Eric Styles
Christopher Milburn
Paul Rattigan
Michael Walker
Based on the play by Noël Coward
Director of Photography
Jimmy Dibling
Caroline Limmer
Production Designer
Humphrey Jaeger
Music/Music Conductor
John Debney
©Replyearth Limited
Production Companies
Midsummer Films and Overseas Film Group present in association with The Isle of Man Film Commission
A Christopher Milburn production
Developed in association with Hallelujah Productions
Executive Producers
Steve Christian
Chris Harris
Co-executive Producers
Francesca Barra
Maud Nadler
Alex Swan
Associate Producers
Paul Rattigan
Michael Walker
Production Supervisor
Liam Foster
Production Co-ordinator
Page Wingrove
London Co-ordinator
Jemma Shuttleworth
Location Manager
John Hinnigan
Liz Pearson
Stuart Shanks
Assistant Directors
Jon Williams
Huw Jones
Steffan Morris
Script Supervisor
Kirstie Edgar
UK Director:
Celestia Fox
US Director:
Amanda Mackey Johnson
Louis Elman
2nd Unit Camera Operator
Martin Hume
Digital Effects
Men in White Coats
Graphic Artist:
Mark Warbrook
Associate Editor
Ian Seymour
Art Director
Kate Evenden
Costume Designer
Nic Ede
Costume Supervisor
Heather Blurton
Wardrobe Master
Miles Johnson
Chief Hair/Make-up Artist
Julie Van Praag
Make-up Artist
Sarah Astley
Titles Designer/Creator
Phil Attfield
Front Titles
Men in White Coats
End Credits
Howell Opticals
End Credits Design
Spectra Titles
Music Performed by
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Solo Pianist
Simon Chamberlain
Music Orchestration
Brad Dechter
Music Editors
Thomas Carlson
Chris Cozens
Recording Engineer
Mike Ross-Trevor
"Almost Like Being in Love" - The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Rick Riso; "All My Love" - Patti Page
Sound Facilities Supervisor
Richard Conway
Sound Recordist
Phil Edward
Dubbing Mixer
Tim Alban
Supervising Sound Editor
Bernard O'Reilly
Dialogue Editor
Julian Dodwell
Paul Harris
Ralph Kelsey
Additional Recordist:
Angie Stanghetti
Julian Dodwell
Felicity Cottrell
Jack Stew
Barnarby Smyth
Animal Wranglers
Stephen Swinnerton
Jane Pinches
Animal Dramatics
Horse Wranglers
Caroline Stephenson
Susan Denny
Julie Andrews
Felicity, Countess of Marshwood
Edward Atterton
Nigel, Earl of Marshwood
William Baldwin
Don Lucas
Colin Firth
Stephen Fry
Sophie Thompson
Jeanne Tripplehorn
Miranda Frayle
Stephanie Beacham
Gaye Brown
Lady Hayling
Anwen Carlisle
Kathryn Dimery
Mrs Crane
Charles Edwards
Philip Bateman-Tobias
Michael Higgs
film director
John Hinnigan
stable boy
Patrick Marley
Richard Nichols
David Schaal
the baddie
Lynne Seymour
air stewardess
Kay Stephens
Lauren Stocks
Aaron Zorzo
Alliance Releasing (UK)
8,021 feet
89 minutes 8 seconds
Colour by
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011