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Film review: Enchanted April

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There's an old saying that the biggest or nicest surprises come in small packages. That's certainly true here. "Enchanted April," a low-budget British film that has sneaked into town with no fanfare whatsoever, is an utter delight.

A low-key romance, laced with light comic touches, "Enchanted April" begins at a snail's pace. But it isn't long before it's on the move, telling the story of four disparate Englishwomen in the 1920s who are brought together for an unusual vacation. And as it progresses, the film becomes more and more entrancing.

Lottie (Josie Lawrence), a mousy housewife, meekly approaches Rose (Miranda Richardson) one day, a neighbor whom Lottie has seen in church. She suspects they have much in common and Lottie needs a friend. But she also has an agenda.

Lottie wants to take a vacation, to get away from the rainy, foggy London weather — and she wants to do it without her insufferable husband Mellersh (Alfred Molina). She has the place all picked out, an Italian castle they can rent for a month. But she doesn't have enough money to go it alone. (Nor the nerve to tell her husband.) With a friend to bolster her and share expenses, she thinks she can manage it.

Rose is reluctant, but as it turns out, her husband Frederick (Jim Broadbent) is equally insufferable, an author of salacious novels who has an eye for the ladies. So, she agrees.

Still, their funds won't stretch as far as they'd like, so they advertise for two more women to join them. They get only two replies, Mrs. Fisher (Joan Plowright), an older, very opinionated and old-fashioned widow, and Lady Caroline Dester (Polly Walker), a beautiful woman of station, who is even more intimidating to Lottie and Rose than Mrs. Fisher.

At the castle, the four seem to be stepping all over each other and don't get along much at all. And it doesn't look like it's going to get better when, after the first day, Lottie writes a letter asking her husband to join them.

But the film takes a surprising turn as each of these women — and everyone else who comes to the castle — becomes "enchanted," if you will . . . by Italy, the weather, the gorgeous countryside and the quiet and peace they offer.

Screenwriter Peter Barnes ("The Ruling Class," "Wrong Arm of the Law," "Fathom") and director Mike Newell ("The Good Father,"' "Dance With a Stranger") would hardly seem likely choices to come up with a movie that seems so Merchant-Ivory in tone (the folks who did "Howards End" and "A Room With a View"). But they handle it perfectly.

With a very light touch, brief occasional voice-overs of the women's thoughts and perceptive little bits of business that tell us much about each character, Barnes and Newell have concocted the sweetest, gentlest and most romantic movie to come along in many a moon.

Kudos to the filmmakers and their perfect cast. And here's hoping moviegoers discover "Enchanted April" before it departs.

The film is rated PG but has nothing offensive.