Because of its palatial setting and litany of over-privileged, sex-driven Anglos—all prone to gossip and dissimulation—living in close quarters and secretly shacking up, Christopher Menaul’s 1st Night superficially resembles The Rules of the Game. But where Jean Renoir often lampooned his cadre of affluent nincompoops, Menaul celebrates or otherwise venerates his characters’ frivolities. When the people in Renoir’s masterwork flaunt their wealth, we’re meant to be turned off, but when Adam (Richard E. Grant), an absurdly wealthy industrialist who yearns to show his cultured colleagues that he’s more than just a hardened businessman, lands his private helicopter on the front lawn of his massive estate, we’re meant to be impressed. Such distasteful flashes of wealth and excess find their way into virtually every scene of the film.
Promising a hearty paycheck, Adam gathers some of the U.K.’s finest opera singers and brings them to his sprawling countryside mansion in order to stage a production of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. The plot of the opera, which features cheeky shenanigans among a band of youthful, well-to-do men and women, is mirrored in the film’s own: Its central conflict involves a cocky actor, Tom (Julian Ovenden), who takes a bet from Adam that he’ll woo and subsequently bed the opera’s female lead, Nicoletta (Mia Maestro). Unexpectedly, true love flourishes between Tom and Nicoletta, while the looming secret of the wager threatens to derail not only their relationship, but the success of the whole production.
Naturally, the political dynamic that underpins The Rules of the Game is nonexistent in 1st Night, which is fixated entirely on the zany sexcapades of its characters. As a farcical comedy of manners, it does have a few worthwhile gags, mostly involving the opera’s director, Phillip (Oliver Dimsdale), who’s sexless relationship with one of the actresses, Tamsin (Emma Williams), turns out to be a direct result of his latent homosexuality. But these flashes of humor are no match against the hackneyed storyline. Banal and overly polished, the film brims with the sort of generic dialogue and general miscomprehension of human behavior found in your garden-variety rom-com, with Menaul exhibiting zero interest in operatic form, despite the presence of such notable U.K. theater stars as Sarah Brightman and Nigel Lindsay.