Finney, Courtenay in a delicate duet

Review: PBS launches its 29th `Masterpiece Theatre' season with this lovely, rather English, odd-couple tale.

October 02, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

One is a well-heeled, hard-drinking, stiff upper-lip of a ladies' man. The other is a quiet, deferential and decent retired milkman.

They come together tomorrow night on PBS in a lovely, bittersweet odd-couple drama titled "A Rather English Marriage," starring Albert Finney ("Two for the Road"), Tom Courtenay ("The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner") and Joanna Lumley ("Absolutely Fabulous").

"A Rather English Marriage" launches "Masterpiece Theatre" on its 29th season, and it is a rather perfect send-off.

Finney plays Reggie Conyngham-Jarvis, a World War II fighter pilot and squadron leader living the good life of an upper-class gentleman. Courtenay is Roy Southgate, a shy, lower-middle-class retiree. In English society, the two lives would normally not cross unless Conyngham-Jarvis' country house happened to be on Southgate's delivery route.

But, as coincidence would have it, the two men's wives die on the same night within hours of each other in the same hospital, and a rather clever social worker assigned to see how the two widowers are faring comes up with a plan that just might make life a little easier and less lonely for both.

If you have seen "The Dresser" -- a brilliant, 1983 feature film with Finney as an aged, cranky Shakespearean actor and Courtenay as his long-suffering manservant -- you already get the picture on "A Rather English Marriage."

You also already have sense of what an exquisite duet of old age, social class, companionship and love these splendid actors can dance together.

There are moments so distilled and refined in "A Rather English Marriage" that you will feel as if you are reading poetry or listening to a symphony rather than watching prime-time TV.

Many take place in flashback as the two remember courting their wives. But there are plenty of such present-day moments, too. One of them involves the two men slow-dancing together in the living room on the night of Reggie's birthday as "A Slow Boat to China" plays on the stereo.

And, to further entice you to PBS tomorrow night, there's Lumley who is, well, absolutely fabulous as a woman with whom Reggie falls madly in love. She has tons of baggage, but the much older Reggie seems nothing if not self-delusional in matters of the heart.

`A Rather English Marriage'

When: Tomorrow night 9 to 11

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67) Pub Date: 10/02/99

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