"The Wedding Gift" is a well-made, heartwarming love story involving a devoted couple in their 40s confronting the wife's mysterious debilitating illness, which is marked by blackouts and has left her disabled to the extent that she must wear braces on her hands to keep them from curling inward and use a wheelchair much of the time. Since the couple is played by two of the most skillful actors in British films, Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent, "The Wedding Gift" exudes vitality and good humor. You may be moved to tears, but the vivacious Walters, who first made her mark with "Educating Rita," and Broadbent, a sort of English Randy Quaid, make the film, which is based on a true story, uplifting rather than depressing.
The film opens in a charming small city in the English county of Derbyshire, where Broadbent's Deric Longden owns and operates a lingerie factory. He and his wife, Diana (Walters), live in a large, comfortable home and have two adult children (Andrew Ancel, Anastasia Mulrooney). Deric's forgetful but actually quite sharp and doughty mother (Thora Hird) lives nearby. Clearly, Diana and Deric have had an exceptionally solid marriage; they're both blessed with humor, and they're fast friends as well as lovers. They unhesitatingly, indeed reflexively, put each other first.
The Longdens are too intelligent not to be grateful that they've been lucky, but now Diana's illness is putting a rapidly escalating strain on them. Nobody has ever made Deric feel so alive as Diana has, and his response to her deteriorating condition has been selfless and heroic.
In the course of Diana's increasing incapacitation, Deric has seen his business lose as much as 10,000 pounds a year and has become so weary caring for her that he tends to fall asleep at the wheel of his car. So intense is his devotion to Diana, however, that it threatens to suffocate her; he would even deny her the pills that would allow her to end her life at the point at which she decides her helplessness has become intolerable to her and too crushing a burden upon him. What makes the film so touching and endearing lies in the strategy that Diana chooses to return Deric's love.
There's no small dose of sitcom shtick in Jack Rosenthal's script, based on the real-life Deric Longden's books, "Diana's Story" and "Lost for Words." But it both undercuts the sadness of the Longdens' plight and highlights the serious right-to-die issue, plus some sharp commentary on the inefficiency and inadequacy of Britain's socialized medicine system.
Rosenthal also has the knack of deftly characterizing even the film's bit parts. This has allowed director Richard Loncraine, best known for two delightfully outrageous comedies, "Brimstone and Treacle" and "The Missionary," to make everyone seem individual and very much alive.
Sharing the stellar acting honors with Walters and Broadbent is the lovely Sian Thomas as a near-sightless novelist whose work is much admired by Deric, a fledgling writer himself. By the time it ends, "The Wedding Gift" has both illuminated and celebrated love in its purest, deepest form.
* MPAA rating: PG-13 for theme and some language. Times guidelines: Too intense for small children, some brief, casual above-the-waist nudity. 'The Wedding Gift'
Julie Walters: Diana Longden
Jim Broadbent: Deric Longden
Thora Hird: Mrs. Longden
Sian Thomas: Aileen Armitage
A Miramax presentation. Director Richard Loncraine. Producer David Lascelles. Executive producers Richard Broke, Margaret Matheson. Screenplay by Jack Rosenthal; based on the books "Diana's Story" and "Lost for Words." Cinematographer Remi Adefarasin. Editor Ken Pearce. Costumes James Keast. Music Colin Towns. Production designer Tory Burrough. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
* At selected theaters throughout Southern California.