Among English-speaking countries all but the Australians would have a hard time getting away with such a richly Victorian romance as "The Right Hand Man" (selected theaters) and not have it seem merely old-fashioned.
That's because the Australian cinema is young enough not to have that many precedents in the genre, and therefore it's still possible for such a film to seem fresh. It doesn't hurt, of course, that "The Right Hand Man" has marvelous performances and is a flawless period piece in which each frame seems like a highly detailed old painting come alive. You can feel the oppressiveness of gloomy, heavily Gothic interiors but also the exhilaration of the hunt and all but taste the dust stirred by a great, rumbling stagecoach.
Never more Byronic, Rupert Everett is Harry Ironminster, sickly son of a proud, dominating mother (Jennifer Claire) who longs for an heir even more than she yearns for her native England. She has lost her husband in a racing accident that has cost Harry his arm. Harry is able to charm the rugged Ned Devine (Hugo Weaving), driver of the immense (75-passenger) coach Leviathan, into becoming quite literally his "right-hand man," so that he can return to racing. But because it's 1862 there's nothing much to be done for Harry's diabetes, despite all the efforts of the brilliant, up-to-date local doctor (Arthur Dignam) and his beautiful auburn-haired daughter (Catherine McClements), who's as eager to follow in her father's footsteps as not to fall in love with Harry for fear it could detract her from her goal.
Everett plays the doomed, delicately handsome aristocrat to the full, and everyone else is also a type familiar in Victorian novels. Thanks to a lean, intelligent script by Helen Hodgman developed by co-producer Steven Grives from Kathleen Peyton's novel, neither Everett's gallant Harry nor anyone else seems one-dimensional. Peyton is a contemporary writer, but her romantic spirit is closer to the Brontes than to Barbara Cartland. Peyton's people are very much of their time and place, but they possess an honesty and reflectiveness and an individuality of intellect that gives them an immediacy that makes them involving. Authentic Victorian behavior and formalities of speech may draw smiles, but it's always possible to take everyone seriously. Director Di Drew brings to "The Right Hand Man" the kind of passion and vitality that Gillian Armstong brought to "My Brilliant Career."
Everett, so memorable in "Another Country" and "Dance with a Stranger," and character actress Claire have roles of such substance that they usually come only rarely in the course of an acting career. What's wonderful about Everett's Harry is that he is poetic without wallowing in self-pity. What's equally impressive about Claire's grande dame is that she's neither stupid nor a hypocrite; her snobbish dynastic passion is wedded to a genuine love of land--and her son.
There's a terrific moment when her seedy, unshaven butler--most able-bodied men are off to a gold rush--crudely reminds her to start the dinner meal by giving her shoulder a shove, a gesture she responds to while ignoring its impropriety; it's moments such as these that makes the film so distinctive. Weaving, McClements (in her film debut) and Dignam have less showy roles but are no less effective. McClements' Sarah is endearing in her doughty determination to be a modern woman.
"The Right Hand Man" (MPAA rated R for considerable nudity and adult themes) is more than a period romance; it's a commentary on the way people in any age manage to defy convention only to preserve it. 'THE RIGHT HAND MAN'
A FilmDallas Pictures release of a Yarraman Films production. Executive producer David Thomas. Producers Steven Grives, Tom Oliver, Basil Appleby. Director Di Drew. Screenplay Helen Hodgman; based on the novel by Kathleen Peyton. Story developed by Grives. Camera Peter James. Music Allan Zavod. Production designer Neil Angwin. Costumes Graham Purcell. Film editor Don Saunders. With Rupert Everett, Catherine McClements, Hugo Weaving, Jennifer Claire, Arthur Dignam.
Running time: 1 hours, 41 minutes.
MPAA-rating: R (Under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian.)