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Cottage to Let

Posted by martinteller on May 3, 2014

The rural Scottish estate of John Barrington (Leslie Banks) is bustling these days.  Barrington is an inventor, working on incredibly accurate new bomb sights.  His wife (Jeanne De Casalis) is preparing the estate for an upcoming fundraising bazaar for the war effort.  A cottage on the estate has been set aside as an ad hoc military hospital, and Dr. Truscott (Hay Petrie) has just welcomed his first patient: fighter pilot George Perry (John Mills) has landed in a nearby loch and his shoulder is injured.  Dr. Truscott attends to him with his fetching assistant, the Barringtons’ daughter Helen (Carla Lehmann).  Helen and George appear to be striking up a sudden romance, arousing the jealousy of Barrington’s bookish assistant Alan Trently (Michael Wilding).  At the same time, Mrs. Barrington has also promised the cottage for housing evacuees, and the first has arrived: London lad Ronald (George Cole), who fancies himself a young Sherlock Holmes.  Complicating matters further is the arrival of Charles Dimble (Alastair Sim), who had made previous arrangements to rent the cottage.  Ronald is moved into the Barrington home, where he immediately voices his suspicions about the butler Evans (Wally Patch).  The cook Mrs. Trimm (Muriel George) quits in a huff over all the commotion and returns to her Glasgow employment agent Mrs. Stokes (Catherine Lacey).  Oh, and by the way… amidst all this mess, someone is leaking Barrington’s secrets to the Germans.

My decision to explore the lesser-known works of Anthony Asquith (if he can indeed be said to have any “well-known” works… despite three releases in the much-lauded “Criterion Collection”, he’s far from a household name, even in cinephile circles) continues to pay off.  This isn’t one of his most memorable or captivating or moving films, but it’s quite a bit of fun.  Keeping track of who’s who can be challenging at first, but the wit manages to keep things lively.  Despite sometimes not having a lot of forward momentum plotwise, the movie moves quite swiftly, and keeps you guessing about which players are keeping secrets, and what those secrets are.  The thrilling climax concludes with what has to be the hammiest death scene I’ve ever seen, but even that manages to be part of the fun.  It also utilizes funhouse mirrors some 6 years prior to The Lady from Shanghai (to be fair, Welles put them to much more spectacular use).

The cast of characters are all very enjoyable.  Sim and Mills are reliable as ever, playing roles that they feel very comfortable in.  Banks is a hoot as the boyishly eccentric inventor, as is De Casalis as his scatterbrained but dignified wife.  Patch manages to have some fun as well.  George Cole — who ten years later would be cast as the younger version of Alastair Sim’s Scrooge — practically steals the show.  Ronald is a precocious lad and isn’t bashful about his observational powers, but he also gets shown in a vulnerable position that makes him more than just a wisecracking kid.  Wilding and Lehmann come off a bit bland among all these colorful characters, but they still do a fine job.

It is funny how many of these British wartime films are about spies (excuse me, “agents”) in our midst.  It makes me wonder if seeing these movies made the citizenry somewhat more paranoid about their neighbors.  But despite clearly having a propagandistic angle to it, the film doesn’t ever get too soapboxy.  The twisty plot, verbal humor and winning performances bring the entertainment value to the forefront.  Rating: Very Good (80)


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