The Trouble with Jessica  (15) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Matt Winn, UK, 2023, 89 mins

Cast:  Shirley Henderson, Alan Tudyk, Rufus Sewell, Olvia Williams, Indira Varma

Review by Carol Allen

This elegant albeit often foul mouthed dark satire with a touch of farce is a nicely polished exercise in middle class guilt and self-loathing, which is reminiscent in some ways of Yasmina Reza’s play turned into film, Carnage.

Most of the film is set in one of those elegant, double fronted Victorian houses in London which have been extravagantly modernised with a huge kitchen/diner extension out the back.  It’s a thing of beauty which unfortunately for its owners, Sarah (Shirely Henderson) and Tom (Alan Tudyk), they are about to lose, due to architect Tom’s bad financial choices leaving them deeply in debt.  Their only hope of financial survival is the buyer they have lined up for the  house. 

So they are giving a final dinner party for their best friends from university days, barrister Richard (Rufus Sewell) and his social worker wife Beth (Olivia Williams).  However a fifth old friend from those days, Jessica (Indira Varma), also turns up as an uninvited guest.   And the trouble with singleton Jessica, a newspaper columnist ,who has just published a raunchy memoir detailing her sexual exploits, is that halfway through dinner she goes out into the garden and inconsiderately hangs herself.

From Sarah and Tom’s point of view this could well jeopardise the sale of the house on which their financial salvation depends.  Sarah is convinced the only way out is to get the body back to Jessica’s flat and make it look like she killed herself there.  

The first obstacle she has to deal with is to persuade the others to fall in with her plan, but in true farce tradition, other obstacles turn up – a nosy neighbour (Anne Reid) who wants the celebrity author’s autograph; two policeman (Jonathan Livingstone and David Schaal), alerted by Tom’s aborted attempt at a 999 call, and then there’s the unexpected arrival of the potential buyer Klaus (Sylvester Groth), a strong, enigmatic and morally ambivalent business figure in “consultancy”, whatever that implies.

Director/co-writer Matt Winn’s script is witty, observant and perceptive in terms of the morals and mores of the privileged and the actors seize with glee the opportunities offered.   Henderson as Sarah is both highly strung and bustlingly ruthless as she works to persuade the others of her plan.  Tom is malleable and a bit gormless, Beth a goody goody moralist but only when it suits her and Richard frankly a rogue.  Sewell, as the barrister who defends the villains of society because it pays so well, has some of the best lines, including his expressed desire to “get out of rape and back into murder”. 

This is a nicely polished piece, well acted by the strong cast and very funny in places.  If it wasn’t for the section where the four leave the house to get Jesica’s body back to her flat, where the dramatic tension loosens a little, this would make a good theatre play. But the subsequent resolution, involving the enigmatic Klaus and the two policemen is appropriately satisfying. 

A small and well-crafted film like this one, relying on character and dialogue rather than a huge screen and flashy special fx, is a bit of a rarity these days.   One wonders if there will still be space for such a movie in cinemas in say ten years’ time.   Or will pieces of this ilk be relegated to tv and streaming or even being watched on a mobile phone while on the bus?  Or indeed will such films just cease to exist?   Would be a great shame if that were so. 

The Trouble with Jessica is in cinemas 5th April