Cinemalphabet: J is for Jack and Sarah (1995)
Dame Judi! Dame Eileen Atkins! Sir Ian! Richard E. Grant! *faints* This is just some of the glorious cast of the charming, humble romantic comedy Jack and Sarah. For the record, there was a time when I thought Richard E. Grant was the fussier, balder, less enjoyable alternative to Hugh Grant, but time and this film have soften my opinion of the actor, who – save Hudson Hawk – I tend to enjoy. American films often favor use of British accents to denote “snottiness”, which always made me wonder how British films did this. Apparently, excessive fussiness seems to denote “snottiness” or scoffing at hobos who loiter near their places of employment or being haughty with repair people. All of which describes behavior engaged in by the titular Jack of our story.
One of the things I’ve long hated about movies utilizing the dead wife trope – Jack’s wife Sarah dies at the start of the film due to complications – is how they erase the anger, resentment and guilt existing in these situations. Even Rocky Balboa didn’t want to see his child when the mother was in a coma. Yet somehow many films like gloss over all of that and cut to the scene where the styling widowed dad wears a snuggly and has hot young, women hit on him.
Jack goes through the anger, resentment and bitterness and refuses to bond with his little girl until his mother played by Dame Judi and his MIL played by Eileen Atkins decide they ought to take matters into their own hands. In the meantime, the world’s fastest and most efficient collection of contractors have miraculous turned Jack’s previously gutted fancy house into a smart looking, well decorated home. Finally, he moves toward acceptance of his responsibilities and then via male privilege flaunts those responsibilities by bringing his daughter – also named Sarah – to the office! In one very astute moment of gender analysis a female coworker says, “You’re getting away with murder, Jack. Would have been interesting to see how all of this went if it had been a woman.” Oh snap!
But male privilege and grief are the least of Jack’s cinematic worries. His meddlesome mother and her cohort are starting reconsider their previous assessment of the situation and now wish to be completely involved with the child-rearing. Jack has other plans; he wants to hire a nanny. Cue the arrival of Samantha Mathis as the plucky, American girl in London who endears herself to Jack by heating up a bottle and pouring a beer into the lap of a dude who grabbed her ass. As Amy, Mathis is the sweet, somewhat clueless nanny who Jack both loves and loathes in equal parts. Phil (Atkins) and Margaret (Dench) are much clearer on the matter; they are disgusted that Jack would hire a stranger to care for their granddaughter.
Tensions brew and – of course sparks fly – between Jack and Amy who attempt to figure out what the hell the boundaries of their relationship are. Is Amy a servant? She doesn’t seem to think so, but Phil and Margaret do, and Jack doesn’t tell them otherwise. Naturally, the plot finds lots of reasons to keep Amy staying with Jack and Sarah, but not without tossing in a few road blocks into their budding romance. Sir Ian co-stars as William, a down on his luck ruffian with impeccable manners and housekeeping skills. After an initial conflict, William quickly becomes family to Jack and baby Sarah. Amy and William battle for the loyalty and soul of Jack, “My name is William! I am not something you call for at the end of a meal (Bill)!” and each learn to love the other for the reasons that Jack cares for them. It’s a small, but delicious role for Sir Ian and I love him in it. Meanwhile Amy’s sometimey boyfriend – who looks like a wannabe Sting – has gotten Amy’s bestie knocked up, thus destroying two relationships. Or not. Of course, this drama in Amy’s personal life conspires to bring Jack and Amy together. But not so fast! Remember that astute feminist from earlier? Well apparently, Jack and Anna are developing romantic feelings much to the chagrin of everyone else involved in Jack’s life – including his secretary.
The charm of Jack and Sarah is not merely its infinitely likable cast, though that’s a lot of it. But the honest and poignant way the film explores the notion of “family” – those we are bound to by blood, by obligation and of course by choice. Each of whom require more love than we often feel able to give.