In recent years, British cinema has cornered the market in whimsical love stories spiced with just a little pain or grief: Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991), Hear My Song (1991), Antonia and Jane (1991). Most films of this ilk tend towards a television-style blandness, and indeed most of them originate as telemovies. For some obscure reason, these films have a faithful cinema audience in Australia.
Jack and Sarah is the latest of this very average British crop. It tells the story of a widowed father, Jack (Richard E. Grant), who has to come to terms with raising his baby daughter, Sarah. Initially, those who fill this breach in his life are nosey family members (especially his mother and stepmother) and an eccentric drunkard picked up on the street.
But the other key character here turns out to be Amy (Samantha Mathis), an American whom Jack conscripts as nanny. Writer-director Tim Sullivan cursorily toys with a number of familiar dramatic conflicts – master vs servant, British repression vs American broadness, masculine rationality vs feminine emotion – before settling into an even more familiar romantic comedy pattern.
Much of the film partakes of that grey, uncomfortable aura which Pauline Kael memorably called British miserabilism. Here, it's the women who tend to be especially miserable. Jack's stepmother is a pinched, withdrawn, unloving crone. His boss, whom he dates briefly while Amy seethes in the background, is a robotic, predatory harridan.
Sullivan labours to pull a bit of last-minute pathos from the hat to redeem all these characters, but his heart is clearly not in it.
Jack and Sarah, more than any other recent British film, aims to crossbreed such low-key miserabilism with a certain high-key, Hollywood lightness. We are not very far from Three Men and a Baby (1987) with the many cute gags showing Jack as a nervous guy ill-equipped for fatherhood – fumbling like a burlesque clown on the way to the delivery room, or sticking a sock on his baby's head in lieu of a beanie.
It becomes impossible, while watching this film, not to superimpose in one's mind the two Grants of contemporary British cinema – Richard E. and Hugh – especially as Jack and Sarah resembles at several points the rather better shaped entertainment Nine Months (1995). This Grant is almost as appealing as his namesake; he shows that he can stretch from his usual neurotic-eccentric-frazzled persona to something rather more human and touching.
But ultimately, this is a modest, slight, extremely uneven film. A laboured subplot involving Amy's best female friend and ex-boyfriend is especially weak. And the ending – which tries to give a quirky British surprise to an American-style happy ending – strains all credibility.
© Adrian Martin November 1995