It's odd, when you first move away from home, and suddenly, you're faced with running a household. Meals prepared, a home to keep clean and tidy and stocked, emergencies that happen and you're not sure if the professionals need to be called in, or can you handle it by yourself. There's a thousand questions that need to be answered, and if you were lucky (or smart) as a kid, you learned them when you were growing up. Even in this age of marvels, these answers can be elusive, and I wonder how much more so it must have been in our grandmothers and great-grandmothers times.
Welcome to the time of Mrs. Beeton, when England was firmly entrenched in the Victorian period of the nineteenth century, and the Industrial Revolution was creating a new middle class. Only thing was, many of these women who were the daughters and wives of these new households were suddenly full of questions about how to manage servants, what was expected socially, how to dress and everything that could possibly be imagined. And in a class conscious world, women were already expected to know how to do all this.
The film opens with an elegantly dressed woman observing a funeral. She has something about her that immediately catches our attention, perhaps it's the ready smile, or the clever look in her eyes. This, she annouces, is the funeral of a nobody, indeed, it's her own. And who is she? Why none other than Mrs. Beeton herself...
We first meet Isabella Mayson (Anna Madeley) as a young woman just returned from schooling in Germany. Eldest of an enormous brood of children and stepchildren, Bella's not quite so skilled in the gracious arts of a middle class girl, but she has a quick and clever mind, and when she meets the son of a family friend, it's love at first sight for them both.
But Sam Beeton (JJ Feild) isn't quite the match that her parents have hoped for. He's a struggling publisher, dabbling about in magazines, and they want to make sure that their Bella will be comfortable and happy. No marriage, it seems for Sam and Bella, unless Sam can keep her in a home and garden of her own. Soon enough, it seems that Sam has indeed fulfilled his promise, for Bella is wed and blissfully happy, in a cozy home in the London suburbs, and even a devoted maid, Ann (Siobhan Hayes) to help her set up housekeeping.
Bella isn't quite so certain of her skills, and she struggles with both cooking -- something she can't quite do, and being a helpmeet and wife for her Sam. One day she heads for his office in London, and discovers that he's out, and sets herself down and translates an article for his magazine, despite the protests of his assistant, Fred (Joseph Mawle). When Sam finally returns, he begins to realize what a real treasure he has in his Bella, and soon enough, she's become a writer for his magazine, The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, one of the first publications that was geared towards women, and the ancestor of all those lifestyle magazines so popular today.
But if their professional life was improving, there was a tragic secret at the heart of Sam and Bella's marriage, one that is destroying their family, and eventually will take all of their dreams.
The humour in this one is of the subtle sort -- watch for a riotous scene involving a turtle that Ann has brought from the market to be turned into soup. And Bella's own comments on what was expected of a good wife, and the reality of it, make for a good chuckle or two. Interspersed with this are tragedies of the worst sort, which Anna Madeley truly brings to life with convincing grief and sorrow. It's this blend of the happy and sad that makes this movie work so well.
One of the high points in this, besides Anna Madeley's acting, are the details in costuming and set design. I felt like I had actually stepped back in time, and while we do get to see the more sordid, grimy side of life, there's some truly beautiful sequences in here, and Jon Jones' direction is light enough to let the story speak for itself.
Those who are curious about Isabella Beeton should try to find a copy of Kathryn Hughes' biography, <a href="[...]">The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton,</a> which goes into more detail about the middle class women of Victorian England. Finally, if anyone is curious, Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management is still in print today, and there's been several modernized spin-offs that take some of her recipes and updated them for the modern cook.
While it is rather specialized in the subject matter, it's a thoughtful and evocative look at the past, and it's one that I happily recommend. There isn't a rating, but given some of the serious subject matter, I would suggest a PG-13, and leave it up to the parent's to decide if they want to let their children see it. Some sex is hinted at, and glimpses of London's underworld of prostitution and disease are present, but nothing is vulgar or vivid, either.
The DVD release is scheduled for mid-June 2007 and I will update this review if there is any need to do so once I have my own copy. And yes, that's the highest recommendation that I can give to this film, that I enjoyed it enough to want to add a copy to my own collection.
Happily recommended. Four and half stars, rounded up to five.