Twelve years after it’s cinematic release in 1999, The Secret Laughter of Women is coming to DVD for the first time. Set in the south of France, Long plays Nimi, or Mrs Da Silva if you play by her formal rules. She is a single mother to Sammy (Roberts), a constant needle for her close-knit, overbearing Nigerian family who are eager to have her married off for a dowry as small as a tin of sardines. And who better than the new reverend in town (Ariyon Bakare)? But Sammy has ideas of his own, befriending the author of his favourite comic books, Matthew Field (Firth), and determining that he should marry his mother instead.
The Secret Laughter of Women could be both a family drama and a romantic comedy, as well as a culture clash, fish-out-water tale. It flits between them all, albeit the comedy less so than the rest, and suffers from not really knowing what kind of a film it wants to be. The inevitable rom-com obstacles ensue, with misunderstandings and changes of heart and unexpected obstacles such as Nimi’s impending engagement and Matthew’s already being married, an “open” relationship, “to keep it exciting”. In today’s sexualised climate, this just sounds twee, but this aside, the film doesn’t seem dated.
The culture clash element of the film concerns both Nimi’s Nigerian heritage, and her strict Catholicism, whereas Matthew is white and frivolous, with no religion, or scruples, to speak of. He is friends with an outrageous American too, the scandal! Nimi is more Europeanised than the rest of her family however, illustrated by her wearing jeans instead of traditional dress, so we’re reduced to laughing at Matthew when he uses the wrong to eat with, rather than seeing any actual issues played out when people from very different cultures do fall in love. Bride and Prejudice (2004) addressed these issues more sensitively and thoroughly, proving it can be done, making it a shame all the more that The Secret Laughter of Women missed it’s chance.
The script itself also seems somewhat lacking. It ambles along, the ending entirely predictable and Sammy seems to be the foil in which the movie could propel itself. Of course he would immediately suggest that Matthew should marry his mother and he would agree to meet her. Of course he would spill stew on the Reverend. Of course he would run off and get into trouble and bring Nimi and Matthew back together. Elsewhere, the setting is beautiful, the shots of the sea and the saturation of sunlight adding romance to the picture. Nimi being a gardener affords lots of flora, notably post-coital, not dissimilar to I Am Love (2009), but not nearly as extravagant.
Throughout the movie, Firth seems quite uncomfortable with the character he is playing. Matthew is often rude, unable to communicate his feelings, and behaves in a selfish, abrupt manner. It’s unconvincing that Nimi should fall for him, when Firth hasn’t fallen for him either. It almost seems as though Schwabach has tried to capitalise on Firth’s 1995 performance as Mr Darcy, treating them mean to keep them keen, but has made only a caricature, a parody of a cold hearted, mean man who is “afraid” of love and, cliché alert, needs a ‘good woman’ to teach him how to feel again.
Nimi is something of a contradiction though. If she’s so independent and strong, wearing European clothes, having a good job, and raising her son without a father, then it makes no sense to have her railroaded by her traditional family on one single issue of contention, her unwedded status. Whilst everything is stacked against them, the two leads don’t have the chemistry to convince an audience that they’d give it all up for a shot at this relationship, which should surely be the core of the film.
The Secret Laughter of Women is light, easy going, and requires no brain power, but unfortunately this is because it has so little in the way of substance. If you’re looking for another Mr Darcy, unfortunately, this won’t be it. There are no special features included on the disc, and no clues as to what the title could mean either, as it barely even raises a titter.
The Secret Laughter of Women is out on DVD on 26th September – order it here