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‘A Chorus of Disapproval’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 23, 1989


Michael Winner
Jeremy Irons;
Anthony Hopkins;
Jenny Seagrove
Parental guidance suggested

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For about the first 20 minutes of "A Chorus of Disapproval," you may feel you've hit upon a raucous classic. It's not. Directed by Michael Winner from an Alan Ayckbourn play, the movie is about a mild-mannered man placed, unwillingly at first, into the role of village Casanova. Guy (Jeremy Irons) is a bland functionary for an electronics firm recently transferred to the British seaside resort of Scarborough. Trying to stitch together his life after the death of his wife, he responds to a casting call for an amateur opera company's production of "The Beggar's Opera." Little does he realize what he's walking into.

Ayckbourn's writing in these early scenes is bristling and wicked, especially when Guy arrives for his audition. The company's director and tyrannical house genius is a daft Welshman named Dafydd Ap Llewellyn. Played by Anthony Hopkins, Dafydd is a sawed-off, alcoholic Quasimodo, about one scone away from exploding the buttons off his overcoat. The rankest of amateurs, Guy fumbles in his pockets for the crumpled sheet music to the one song he can halfway sing, and while he searches, Dafydd burns -- hilariously.

Hopkins's acting here is ravenous and inspired. Ayckbourn has given him a delicious role, and he cuts into it with a genuine relish, like a man starved for a meaty part. Hopkins's Dafydd is a very specific kind of theatrical monster, the embittered small-timer, forced for all time to squander his footlight brilliance on no-talent amateurs. Dafydd rants against the incompetents who plague his life, butting his head against the wall with frustration. He's a bully, prone to white-hot displays of churlish temperament, but he's a passionate theater animal to the bone, and there's a pathos to the dedication he brings to his pipsqueak productions.

To the locals who make up his cast -- most of whom are desperate for any sort of diversion -- these mad tirades are the manifestation of artistic sensibility; he's behaving the way geniuses are supposed to behave. Still, as Dafydd rants, his troops dwindle in number, and Guy's parts grow larger and more important.

For the female members of the cast, Guy is a godsend, and they waste little time exploiting this valuable new resource. Ayckbourn has a knowing grasp of backstage scandal and intrigue. Almost before Guy has spoken his first line, he is swept up in an affair with Hannah (Prunella Scales), Dafydd's dowdy, frustrated wife, and whisked away into a more heated liaison with Fay (Jenny Seagrove), who quite fittingly plays one of the prostitutes in the show.

Irons is likable enough as this naive but accommodating twerp, and some of his readings come at you from delightfully odd angles, but he's cast too true to type to give the characterization any tension. Added to this, Guy is perhaps a little too slow on the uptake. When Fay's husband invites the hapless laddie over for dinner and winkingly suggests that he bring a friend, it seems not quite plausible that Guy wouldn't catch his meaning. Still, the platinum-haired Seagrove does bring a nymphomaniac yearning to the scene (and the tight white lace-up mini-dress she wears doesn't hurt).

Scales, on the other hand, is devastatingly sad as Hannah, more so perhaps than the picture can support. The moment in which she sits with the doll-facsimile that her daughters have made of their father is a blast of unexpected poetry. (They call it their "other dad.") This bare, desolate vein in the material is exposed once again when Dafydd learns of his wife's affair with Guy, to whom he has become increasingly close. Or, on another occasion, when the older man confesses to his young friend the difficulties he's encountered thawing his arctic wife.

"A Chorus of Disapproval" is full of choice bits, some riotous, some overwhelmingly bleak. What it attempts is a combination of farce and dark realism, but in putting this reluctant Lothario at the center of their story, the filmmakers have hitched themselves to a mighty dim star. In addition, the charge goes out of the comedy once the pairings have been set up, partly because Winner, who after 27 films still directs as if he doesn't know which end of the camera to use, can't find the proper perspective on the gags, and partly because there's no tension in the setups to begin with.

Perhaps the disappointment that seeps in as the film progresses is the result of the too-high expectations at the start. Winner does what he can to eat away at our enthusiasm, but a performance like the one Hopkins gives is director-proof. It gives you reason to hope for more.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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