Mad About the Boy: The Noël Coward Story – movie review

Mad About the Boy has been released to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Noel Coward’s death. This well-researched, revealing and entertaining documentary profiles Coward, the debonair “quintessential” English man and prolific writer, songwriter, actor and film director known for his quick wit and flamboyant style.

The film celebrates Coward’s prodigious life and career; and how he reveled in his image as the sophisticated playboy. The film traces his life from his humble origins to become feted on the world stage to his death. In his heyday, he was one of the highest paid writers in the world. During his long career, Coward wrote over 60 plays, including arguably his most famous works Blithe Spirit and Private Lives, and some 500 songs notable for their witty lyrics. He co-wrote and co-directed the WWII drama In Which We Serve with his good friend David Lean, and was nominated for an Oscar for writing the 1945 classic romance Brief Encounter. He was nominated for two Tony awards and won a special Tony for his overall contributions to the theatre. When he died in 1973 all the theatre lights in London’s West End were turned off in his honour.

Mad About the Boy has been written and directed by Barnaby Thompson (the comedy St Trinian’s). The film is thoroughly researched and detailed. Thompson crams a lot into its brisk 90-minute running time. He has drawn upon lots of archival footage and snippets of television interviews to provide some insight into Coward, all of which is deftly edited together by Ben Hilton. There are also some brief snippets from the 60s classic The Italian Job in which Coward famously played the notorious crime boss Mr Bridger. But Thompson has also accessed plenty of vintage home movie footage shot by Coward himself.

Thompson also looks at how Coward was no longer welcome at home in his native Britain and made his way to America where he was celebrated. We learn about Coward’s residency in Las Vegas where he was feted by the likes of Sinatra; his work as a spy for British Intelligence during WWII where he set up a spy network in Paris; he lived in Jamaica near author Ian Fleming, but he turned down an offer to play the eponymous villain in the first James Bond film, Dr No.

Thompson also delves into the contradictions of his life. Homosexuality was illegal in Britain until the late 60s, and Coward had to keep his sexuality a secret for fear that it could ruin his career. But he could also boast famous friends, including the Queen Mother who apparently was instrumental in arranging for his knighthood in 1970.

The documentary is narrated by Alan Cumming, while Rupert Everett provides the voice for Coward while reading excerpts from his letters and diaries and his autobiography.

Mad About the Boy: The Noël Coward Story is in limited release

Greg King

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