We open in a fancy room strewn with white flowers and assorted pretty girly things. A maid’s fussing about with a suitcase while her mistress goes to answer a ringing telephone in the bedroom. The mistress answers the phone and, in French, tells the person on the other end to tell the gentleman he’s too late. With that, she hangs up. She’s played by Rebecca Hall, and I have to admit, I’ve never been a big fan of hers. I think that’s more because of the roles she tends to play than her acting ability, though. I spent all of Vicky Christina Barcelona wanting desperately to punch her in the face.
In London, Sherlock and Watson—I mean, Benedict Cumberbatch and some unnamed pal of his walk through Victoria Station, discussing Benedict’s travel plans. He’s heading to Paris to get married to Rebecca Hall. The friend wishes him happiness, sincerely, it seems, but Benedict grouses a bit about getting married in Paris, which I guess really isn’t the done thing. He asks his friend what they’re saying at the office, and Friend tells him he’s been putting the word out that the bride’s mother was married in Paris, thus giving them a nice excuse for this sort-of elopement. Rebecca’s name is Sylvia in this, by the way, and Benedict’s is Christopher. Might as well get that out of the way quickly.
Christopher quickly reveals two things: Sylvia’s pregnant and he’s not even sure the kid’s his. Awesome.
Back in Paris, Sylvia’s getting ready for bed. As she ties the sash on her robe, the man she was supposed to meet earlier bursts in. Holy crap, it’s Two Face! With a whole face and a normal voice! He yells and throws a right old tantrum as she calmly dismisses the maid and asks the man whether his wife will be wondering where he is. He begs her not to marry Christopher, but she reminds him that single motherhood was rather frowned upon in 1908, so she doesn’t have a whole lot of choice here. He kisses her and she puts up a token protest before giving in and tumbling to the floor with him.
Christopher’s on the train, flashing back to a train journey two months earlier, when he met Sylvia. She tells him she’s ducking away from a dull house party and he indicates he knows who she is. Seems like she’s already got a bit of a reputation.
In Paris, Christopher’s heading to the church with his brother, played by Rupert Everett, and sharing his plans for the future: they’ll take a house in Knightsbridge and Sylvia’s mother will live with them. Yes, that’s an arrangement that typically works out for everyone involved.
Sylvia’s also making her way to the church, with her mother and an Irish priest who’s evidently known her for some time. She plays with a little box and, when her mother comments on it, tells her Gerald Drake gave it to her the previous night. The priest rolls his eyes and tells her she has no shame.
Bride car. Sylvia asks for a cigarette, which the priest refuses to give her. He sighs that he’s happy her father’s not alive to see all this nonsense she’s been up to.
Bro car. Mark mocks his brother for getting trapped by some knocked up slut. But at least it means he won’t have to get married now. It’ll all be on Christopher and his future kid to inherit the family’s estate. They’re just assuming it’s a boy, I guess. They arrive at the church. As they walk up the steps, Christopher flashes back to that train trip two months ago. Apparently he and Sylvia got to know each other quite well, very quickly. Hence, the shotgun wedding.
The sound of the train’s shrill whistle gives way to a toddler’s frightened screams. It’s now three years later and the son that may or may not be his is waking Christopher up after a nightmare. He goes to tend to the kid, despite Sylvia telling him to just let the nanny see to him. He dispatches the nanny for warm milk and gathers up the boy, carrying him over to what appears to be the creepiest goddamn picture I’ve ever seen in a child’s room ever. Jesus, no wonder this kid’s having nightmares. Apparently, it’s a picture of the family pile and some tree in front of it (what makes it creepy is what appears to be a ghost or plague victim or something standing in the foreground). The tree’s hung with all sorts of little talismans and Christopher tells the boy about it and how the things hung from it bring good luck. There’s a wishing well too, and he starts to count down the amount of time it takes a penny to fall to the bottom, and the soothing counting soon puts the boy to sleep. Aww, Christopher’s a good dad. He lays the boy in bed as the nurse reappears with the milk.
Daytime. Christopher’s scribbling in the margins of the Encyclopaedia Britannica while Sylvia boredly orders up tea and reads gossip bits from the paper aloud to her mother. She adds a few tasty tidbits she happens to know, which raises her mother’s eyebrow about a millimetre. Mom’s more interested in an article about the PM asking the King to create 400 new peers so they can push through a health insurance bill that’ll give poor people access to medicines. She notes that the Association of Domestic Servants is against the bill and wonders why. Christopher chips in that the bill violates the trust between servant and master, because it’s the duty of employers to look after employees, and those who don’t should be jailed. Yes, Christopher, that works out marvellously if you happen to have a very benevolent employer who’s willing to cut his own bottom line for the sake of his employees. Good luck finding many of those. Also, how very timely this conversation is!
Sylvia whines that she’s bored and asks her mother if she can see why she can’t stand her husband. “You married above your intellect and don’t take kindly to disadvantage,” her mother replies. Yow! I think I rather like this mother.
For no apparent reason, Sylvia pitches her toast and plate right at Christopher, shattering the plate. The hell is this woman’s problem? Even her mother’s looking at her, like, ‘are you bipolar now?’ Sylvia shrilly tells her mother Christopher is making corrections in the Encyclopaedia, and if she killed him, no jury would convict her. Really? Why not? Because you’re clearly insane?
Belowstairs, one of the servants shows another one a picture of Sylvia flirting with someone, which is appearing in the papers. The servant identifies him as ”him with the purple Rolls.”
Christopher arrives at his office—the Imperial Department of Statistics—and gives the cabbie some advice about his horse before going in. Inside, he meets his friend from earlier—Mr. MacMaster—who’s freaking out over some numbers Christopher has worked up which suggest the Exchequer will be ruined by the insurance bill because people will suddenly decide they’re sick all the time and they’ll demand doctors’ visits and medicines and all sorts of terrible things like that.
At home, Sylvia’s wasting time with an equally awful friend, who wonders, if you could have a new lover all the time without any consequences, would it ever get boring enough for you to go back to your husband? Sylvia suggests just keeping the lover for the weekends, because at the very least a husband gives you a place to store your maid. The ladies hear someone knock on the door and look out to see an ostentatiously purple Rolls Royce in front of the house and a man down below being told by the maid that Sylvia’s not at home. He leaves, dejected, despite the fact that they had plans. Upstairs, Sylvia tells her friend there’s no point in taking a lover if your husband doesn’t notice. She wishes she could come up with a way to shake Christopher up, but it seems Chris isn’t the shaking type.
Flash back to that ill-fated railway journey three years before. Sylvia asks for a cigarette and Christopher obliges.
Back in the present, Christopher’s boss is taking him to task for those numbers, because it seems his job involves supporting the government and everything it wants to do, no matter how much numerical massaging that takes. Christopher tightly tells him he just thought he should know all the facts, and that it’s not difficult to work the numbers to get a more ”congenial” result, but if that’s what they do, he doesn’t want to be associated with it.
Nighttime. A car pulls up in front of a grand home and a man emerges and is almost immediately set upon by some very vocal suffragettes. He makes it inside to the party, where Christopher is just arriving as well. Sylvia, who’s off dancing with someone, ditches her partner and comes running over to happily greet her husband. Ok, so I guess she is getting bipolar. Or she’s just a total weirdo. Christopher compliments her and she observes he looks upset. She asks him to dance but he declines.
MacMaster’s currently chatting with some lady, and he reveals he’s something of a writer, with a book on Rossetti coming out soon. Christopher comes over and snatches him away to tell him that the man they can see hanging out with their boss is the Right Honourable Stephen Waterhouse? Porterhouse? Apologies, but this is one of many instances where the sound quality lets me down and I can’t understand what the hell anyone’s saying. Anyway, Stephen’s the one who demanded the massaged numbers, so Christopher stomps off to have a word with him. Smart, Chris. Go piss off some guy who clearly has quite a bit of power over you in public.
Christopher joins the group gathered with Stephen. The topic of conversation is the disgrace the suffragettes are. Christopher starts stirring the pot right away by saying that, if the PM had kept his promise to address some of their grievances, they would probably have kept their promise to stop protesting. Chris’s boss and the boss’s brother-in-law, the General, are not pleased by this, but Stephen’s pretty genial, probably because Chris’s figures helped them get the insurance bill in front of the House ahead of schedule. Chris asks if they’re taking the credit from MacMaster and Stephen reassures him they’re doing no such thing, they know just who to thank. Great! One of the ladies asks who MacMaster’s ”people” are and Christopher stiffly tells her MacMaster’s father was a shipping clerk. Astonishingly, she does not actually clutch her pearls as he leaves. Stephen asks if Chris is angry with him and Boss figures Chris is mad at his wife, and they just got the brunt of it.
Sylvia’s dancing with Rolls Royce guy, whom she calls Potty, even though he asks her not to. He asks her if she’ll run away with him and she says she might, one day.
And that one day is here, apparently. Chris sits in his wife’s room, holding a letter and looking a bit bereft. He tells MacMaster Sylvia’s run off and that he plans to give up the London house and send his son to live with his sister, who’s married to a clergyman.
Up to the family pile, Groby, in Yorkshire, Chris goes, along with the kid. He has just enough time to show him the tree and the wishing well before the sister arrives and off the boy and his nanny go. Christopher watches him leave, clearly holding back tears. His mother, who’s in a wheelchair, holds his hand tightly and sympathetically observes that his wife has shamed her husband and child. Chris’s father (I guess) asks him if he’ll divorce Sylvia and Chris said he won’t, because only mean men put their wives through that. While I agree that divorce was disproportionately hard on women at this time, if anyone deserved to get dumped and socially ruined, it’s Sylvia. The woman’s a horrible selfish bitch. Dump her already! But no, he’s going to put the story out that she’s just taking care of her mother, who’s at a spa in Germany for her health.
Rouen, France. Sylvia and Potty arrive back at their hotel from a walk or something and she wastes no time dumping him. Apparently she bores easily. She got tired of her husband and ran off, and now she’s tired of Potty and going back to Christopher. Potty can’t believe it, because he knows she hates Christopher, which she acknowledges, but she also says Christopher’s super smart, which makes all other men seem dull and stupid by comparison. Also, Potty’s a bit too clingy. She seats herself at the writing table as Potty loses his head and grabs a pistol out of the bedside table. Why was he keeping that there? For just this situation? He threatens to kill her and she just laughs in his face and goes back to her letter, commenting on how great the paper is.
Christopher, meanwhile, is still up north, planning a bit of golf with MacMaster, who’s doing his damndest to keep his friend’s chin up. Over breakfast, as MacMaster chatters about their upcoming game and gets proofs of his book, Christopher gets a letter from Sylvia and tells MacMaster she wants him to take her back. MacMaster gets serious fast and asks if Chris will do it. Of course he will. There is, after all, the child to consider. But he won’t have a house in the city again. Apparently there’s some strange upper class rule that says a cuckhold can only have a flat. Whatever. MacMaster, who clearly loathes Sylvia, harshly says he wishes Chris would just divorce her and drag her through the mud as she so richly deserves, but Christopher is a gentleman, and gentlemen just don’t take revenge on their hateful wives, even when they totally deserve it. MacMaster points out that Christopher might meet someone else he wants to marry but Christopher says it doesn’t matter, because he stands for monogamy and chastity. And he married Sylvia? Worst choice he could have possibly made. MacMaster reads a bit of love poetry from his book, which just pisses Christopher off enough to insult the poet by describing the language as being like ”congealed bacon fat”. Because he’s a great friend, MacMaster totally overlooks that and observes that Christopher certainly has a way with words. That he does. He should be in politics.
On the train, MacMaster tells Christopher they have plans to dine with Rev. Duchemin, a well-known man who used to hold famous get-togethers at Cambridge. Apparently he’s not at Cambridge anymore, but conveniently nearby.
On the course. Mac and Chris are joined by their boss, whose name I still can’t understand, so he’s just Mr. S for now, and Mr. S’s brother-in-law, the General. While they’re getting ready to play, a pair of suffragettes, one young, blonde, and pretty, the other middle aged and rather chubby, spy on them.
While Christopher observes the area through a pair of binoculars, General takes the opportunity to urge Mac to convince Chris to go back to Sylvia, because Sylvia’s awesome. Does he have the wrong end of the stick here? It seems like it would be fairly obvious that Sylvia left Chris, not the other way around. General, who clearly doesn’t know Chris at all, figures he must have been fooling around as well, and after Mac assures him that was definitely not the case, he switches tactics and tells him that half the houses in London will be closed to Chris if he doesn’t take Sylvia back. Why? Why would anyone side with Sylvia in this case? She abandoned her husband and child for no socially acceptable reason whatsoever (it’s not like Chris was abusive or anything) and this was not a time that looked kindly on divorce, separation, or abandonment. And it’s not as if Sylvia’s all that likeable anyhow. I’d think people would just wash their hands of this whole family, honestly. I know I would. Chris is boring and Sylvia’s a bitch.
The men continue their game, but they’re interrupted by the absurd arrival of the suffragettes, who come running onto the green yelling “votes for women!” and looking fairly ridiculous. The world’s most useless policeman tries to chase them off, but he can’t catch them, even though they’re in skirts and heels on grass and one of them is not exactly fit. It’s pretty obvious the actor playing the policeman is deliberately not catching them, which makes this scene even sillier than I think it was supposed to be.
Chris has missed all the fuss, because he hooked his ball into the rough. Just as he’s about to get out of it, blonde suffragette asks him to help make sure her fellow protester escapes the policeman. Why’s she asking Chris for help? Why would she think he’d be likely to pitch in to hamper a police pursuit? Luckily for her, Christopher’s willing to help. He tells her to get out of there and he’ll take care of her friend, Gertie. As luck would have it, Gertie comes over the hill, heading in their direction, followed by the cop. The girls take off and Chris throws his bag in the policeman’s path, tripping him. He reassures the policeman he couldn’t have done more and offers the man a wee nip, which the policeman, whose heart really wasn’t in this anyway, accepts. The girls, now chased by the golfers and Christopher, come to a little brook that has a board across it as a makeshift bridge. Gertie takes the bridge, and once she’s over Blondie knocks the board aside and just jumps over the brook. The men all stop on the other side and Blondie gloats that they’ll have to go the long way, by the railway bridge. Or one of them could just jump the brook, as she just did. And she was wearing a skirt, mind, while they’re all in trousers, so I think at least one of them could make it over if their hearts were really in it. I guess they’re not, because they let the ladies go. Boss is pissed and calls Chris an idiot and threatens to have him arrested for perverting the course of justice. Chris sneers that the man can do no such thing because he’s just a borough magistrate. The way he delivers that line is actually pretty funny.
Later, Chris and the General are walking through the wilderness, talking about the chase. Chris doesn’t think the policemen wanted to catch the girls anyway, and the General immediately springs to the conclusion that Chris and Blondie have something going on. He indignantly tells him to set the girl aside so nothing stands in the way of him taking Sylvia back. What, you mean, standing in the way like all of Sylvia’s lovers? Chris tells him there’s nothing going on and the General apologizes and reminds Chris that the girl’s father was friends with Chris’s dad and when he died he left his wife and children in rather straitened circumstances. Chris quickly changes the subject by telling the man he’ll be bringing Sylvia and her mother home soon and the General is delighted to hear it.
That night, Chris is getting drunk with MacMaster and talking doom and gloom about the war he’s certain is inevitable. MacMaster is of the belief that war is impossible, because he’s a total optimist. Chris figures they have exactly two years before the war comes, and it’ll come during grouse season. Wow, he’s precisely right. Hindsight is a wonderful thing when it comes to making your characters seem brilliant, isn’t it, Ford? They talk and joke a bit about the Great Suffragette Steeplechase and Chris reveals that Blondie (whose name is Valentine) is believed to be his lover, and he’s just cooling his heels, waiting for his wife to wire him to come and bring her home.
Germany. Sylvia’s mom is hanging out with that Irish priest and telling him that most women have to endure husbands they loathe at some time or another. I’m starting to understand why Sylvia turned out the way she did, raised by this woman. The priest thinks Sylvia should just be made to go home, have kids, and live decently, even though he knows better than to expect that from her at this point. Sylvia, who’s sitting nearby, pipes up, whining that she’s done with men (yeah, right) and her mother tells her she should be grateful for Christopher and for the fact that he’s willing to take her back. Sylvia thinks he’s only doing so out of some sort of lordly propriety (well, yeah. It’s not like he has any reason to love you any more than you have reason to love him. In fact, I feel like he has less reason to love you, seeing as how you’ve been using him and making him fairly miserable since the day you met). Sylvia does agree to settle down and be chaste, but she’s going to entertain herself by tormenting her husband for all the times he’s tormented her. What? Why? How has he tormented you? By not being passionate enough? If you didn’t want to be trapped in a marriage with someone you didn’t like and who didn’t suit you, maybe you should have thought of that before you started screwing random strangers on trains at a time when single motherhood was socially unacceptable. What’s the matter with this woman?
Mac and Chris head to lunch at the Rev. D’s gorgeous home. They’re passed in the drive by the local curate, Horsley (I think), who’s on a bike, not paying attention as he greets them, and nearly runs straight into a horse and cart that’s standing in the drive. He topples over but is fine; Christopher runs over to soothe the horse and yell at the groom for using the wrong bit. Yes, Chris is super horsey. He is the quintessential English gentleman.
Inside, Valentine is helping Mrs. D arrange flowers on the table in such a way that nobody will be able to see Rev. D. This is entirely deliberate. Mrs. D, a flustered woman played by Anne Marie Duff, says she told the man’s keeper to keep him out until a quarter past. Hmm.
The guests come in, and MacMaster tries to introduce himself to one woman who’s totally deaf and blows him off. Heh. Chris notices Valentine and can hardly keep his eyes off of her. Mrs. D tries to play the hostess, though she’s clearly nervous, the curate babbles mindlessly in the background, and Val’s mother, Mrs. Wannop, a novelist, suddenly shows up uninvited because she’s been misinformed and thinks MacMaster’s a critic. It turns out he just writes for a critical review. I don’t think she knows the difference. Valentine is mortified but her mother doesn’t seem to care. This lunch is quickly disintegrating into a shambles. As they all sit down, Mrs. D tries to tell Mac that her husband isn’t quite all there anymore. He’s really sweet with her and quotes more poetry, which gives Christopher a sour face.
Chris sits next to Valentine and tells her that there are no charges against her, and there won’t be any charges against Gertie either, but Gertie is wanted by the Metropolitan Police. So, I guess she should avoid London for a while, then.
The door opens slowly and in comes Rev. D, who’s played by Rufus Sewell. Man, this has a hell of a cast, doesn’t it? Also, either the makeup team is incredible, or Sewell’s aged about fifteen years or so since I saw him in Pillars of the Earth. I’m thinking makeup has something to do with this. He looks rather gaunt and hollow. Chris recognizes his keeper as a middleweight boxing champion, which should give everyone a cue to hide the cutlery and anything else dangerous before Rev. D can get his hands on it. Rev. thinks Mac’s a mad doctor and Chris is his assistant and that they’re there to declare him insane. Mac corrects him and Rev pulls it together somewhat, for a little while, but then he veers into rather inappropriate conversational areas, such as Mac’s sexual preferences. Mac goes to tell the keeper to get the Rev out of there. Keeper obliges by punching the Rev in the stomach and bundling him out of the room. Mac comforts Mrs. D.
Post lunch, Mac gets hot and heavy with Mrs. D in the dining room while Chris fixes the hitching of the Wannops’ pony and offers to help get Gertie out of the area.
That night, Valentine sees Gertie off, then joins Chris in the pony cart for the ride home. Chris tells her they’re being gossiped about, but she doesn’t care, because she’s focused on her work. Chris doesn’t care about what anyone says for his own sake, but he does care about what they say about Valentine. They hear a lark singing and start quoting Romeo and Juliet to each other. Subtle, you two. Let’s not forget that Romeo and Juliet was about a famously self-destructive love affair.
Later, they realize they’re lost and a fog’s coming up. But it turns out Valentine kind of knows where they are anyway, so it’s all right. She shares some stories about an old man who used to sell cakes from a spot up ahead on market days, but then the market was ended by the repeal of the Corn Laws. Chris asks her why she thinks he collects random facts. She seems to think it’s because he basically wants to be a know-it-all. But she says it kind of nicely.
At dawn, for some reason she’s gotten out of the cart, but the fog’s so thick she can’t tell where he is, so he starts singing to reassure her. She smiles and spins about delightedly, and then suddenly emerges from the fog, nearly kissing him. They pull apart and she tells him they’re nearly home, she found a signpost. They start off again, and she comments that it’s the summer solstice that day, and that they made it through the night. He seems to want to say more to her, and she knows what he wants to say, gently telling him that it couldn’t have lasted forever, but they’ll make it through.
The idyll is ruined by a car coming out of the fog that nearly hits them and spooks the horse. Chris manages to stop her and Val jumps down to assess the damage. She notes that the mare’s back leg is badly cut, so Chris tells her to take off her petticoat for bandages. They notice the car’s stopped just ahead, so he tells her to hide behind a nearby hedge. Out of the car comes the General, who stomps over to find out what’s going on and to scold Chris for being out with Val. Chris loudly tells him he’ll have to pay for the horse. The General blusters and protests and then the petticoat bandages come sailing over the hedge. The general hisses that his sister’s in the car, and what is he supposed to tell her? Chris tells him to tell her whatever he wants, but pay for the horse and send the horse ambulance when he goes through the village.
A little later, Chris and Val are cooling their heels in a field, waiting for the horse ambulance. Val asks why he picked a fight with the general and Chris says they’ll need a quarrel with him to account for the general’s sister spreading malicious slander. Well thought, Chris. Val’s amazed by his ability to think of everything. She asks him to tell her about Groby. He talks about how the tree’s been there forever, for as long as the family has, but now the roots are undermining the foundations, so either the house or the tree will have to go. SYMBOLISM!!!!!!!!!!
Up the lane comes the postmaster’s boy in a pony cart. Chris flags him down and asks him to take Val home. The boy hands over a telegram from Sylvia, accepting Chris’s terms for returning in one word: Right-o. Chris returns to the pony and observes that it’s lost quite a bit of blood. He sadly observes that he let the pony down, and then he collapses against the pony’s neck, crying. Well, Sylvia did want to get some emotional reaction from him. She did it. Not alone, but she did it.