She Stoops to Conquer has long been a preferred teaching text for classes exploring the art of farce and especially the farcical subsets of mistaken identity and comedies of manners. While some purists may defer to Shakespeare in the convoluted identity category, Conquer offers a putatively more modern dialect, courtesy of 18th century playwright Oliver Goldsmith, that perhaps makes it more palatable to ears unaccustomed to too much complex verbiage (which is not to say Goldsmith can't spin the blarney with the best of his kin). Strangely, She Stoops to Conquer, for all its popularity, has not really received many filmed or televised versions over the years (a relatively paltry seven, according to IMDb). That may become moot now with this handsome 2008 production courtesy of producer-director-composer Tony Britten (no relation to Benjamin), who brings the property to the screen in an at times giddy presentation that brings Goldsmith's lunatic characters fully to life. If this isn't a definitive She Stoops to Conquer, it certainly has a wealth of qualities to recommend it.
She Stoops is your basic intricate dual love story mixed with a delicious series of mistaken identities and other tricks of the farcical trade. The story revolves around Mr. Hardcastle (Ian Redford), one of the landed gentry who is hoping to put together an arranged marriage between his daughter Kate (Susannah Fielding) and an impossibly tongue-tied and shy (at least when it comes to upper class women) Charles Marlow (Mark Dexter). Marlow, along with his friend Hastings (shades of Poirot), arrives at Hardcastle's home having been misdirected by Hardcastle's stepson that the manor house is actually an inn, not the Hardcastle manse, leaving Marlow and Hastings to wonder why Hardcastle, supposedly a lower class innkeeper, is so familiar and pushy with them. Hastings (Joseph Thompson), meanwhile, is in hot pursuit of Mrs. Hardcastle's daughter, Constance Neville (Holly Gilbert), who cannot agree to an elopement before she is finally endowed with her inheritance, some family jewels which Mrs. Hardcastle has secreted away.
When Marlow, suffering from something akin to a neurosis when it comes to interacting with well-bred young women, fumbles his introduction to Kate, Kate takes things into her own hands and assumes the role of a local barmaid so that Marlow feels comfortable enough to advance his amorous pursuits. We therefore have several competing layers of door slam-worthy farcical elements, along with a slew of people either mistakenly believing others are who they are not, or alternatively are themselves assuming roles they are not. It's of course completely nonsensical silliness, but it's unerringly delightful, building piece by piece until you know the entire edifice is going to collapse, leaving two happily-ever-aftered couples.
All of the performances in this outing are superb, notably Redford as Hardcastle, whose growing frustration at being treated like an innkeeper may remind some people of John Cleese's similarly exasperated work in Fawlty Towers. Fielding's Kate is beautiful and gracious, with more than a hint of mischievousness, and even a glimmer of women's liberation coloring the character. (In fact Goldsmith makes several satiric points about women's roles throughout the play, including Hardcastle's maid decrying that she's not been given any responsibilities vis a vis the visiting Marlow and Hastings, and so she might as well disappear into the woodwork, so to speak).
If Mark Dexter's Marlow is occasionally annoying, that's the gist of the character at times. The sputtering, stuttering Marlow can't seem to even make eye contact with Kate as Kate, and while some of the comedy in that regard can seem a little forced, it at least sets up the plot point of Kate getting "down and dirty" in order to conquer her love.
What really sets this version apart is an absolutely sumptuous physical production, filmed largely on location in a beautiful manor house in Norfolk. Gorgeous shots of the English countryside, country gardens and lanes, as well as equally beautiful costumes, help bring this resplendent period completely to life. Director Britten occasionally overuses a wide angle lens, leading to some anamorphic warping of some shots, but that's a minor quibble. Composer Britten makes up for that small shortcoming by providing a lilting and lovely score that further anchors the play in its period.
She Stoops to Conquer is one of the great Anglo-Irish gems in farce, a genre sometimes seen as inherently French, considering the masterpieces of such writers as Feydeau and Moliere. Goldsmith proves admirably that comedy knows no national boundaries, and Tony Britten and company provide a glittering and very funny production that does the source material proud.
This is a very, very nice looking DVD, with a beautiful enhanced 1.78:1 image transferred from an HD master. Colors, detail and contrast are all top notch. There is some occasional blooming (no pun intended) in some of the bright floral and topiary backgrounds, but it's nothing major.
Likewise the standard DD stereo soundtrack offers excellent fidelity and range. Dialogue is placed centrally for the most part. Channel separation, while minimal, can be heard in the occasional ambient effect as well as the excellent underscore. Some of the accents are rather thick, and Goldsmith, like Shakespeare, is not above coining a new word here and there, so the optional English subtitles (which strangely are relegated to the left side of the screen) may be welcome for some viewers.
An excellent and informative documentary on Goldsmith is included as an extra which helps to provide biographical background as well as context for She Stoops to Conquer itself.
If you've never seen a production of this august property, you could do a lot worse than starting with this version. Sumptuously produced and acted with just the right amount of lightness, this She Stoops to Conquer is a delight every step of the way. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet