‘The Trouble with Jessica’ Review: An Entertaining but Toothless Satire of the Middle-Class Elite

The Trouble With Jessica (2023) © Bright Pictures
The Trouble With Jessica (2023) © Bright Pictures

How far would you go to protect your family, your lifestyle? It’s an ugly question, and one that Jonathan Glazer tackled head-on last year with his winning drama The Zone of Interest. Here, Matt Winn approaches the question with a lighter touch, satirising the desperate grasping of the middle classes and exposing the greed and violence that lurk beneath their veneer of respectability. 


Hosts Sarah (Shirley Henderson) and Tom (Alan Tudyk) are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, holding a dinner party for their two oldest friends as a sort-of last hurrah – their last time hosting in their grand North London home before they are forced to sell up. Though tensions between the couple are high, they have agreed to make nice for the evening: Richard (Rufus Sewell) and Beth are their oldest friends, after all. But when Richard and Beth bring along Jessica (Indira Varma), a renegade college friend they’ve never managed to shake, the mask begins to slip, and what follows is an hour and a half of black farce laden with a series of twists and turns that shows these slippery characters for who they truly are.

The production is self-consciously theatrical, taking clear inspiration from Joe Orton’s Loot that at some points feel overdone. But a stellar cast brings the production to life: Shirley Henderson is perfectly shrill as Sarah, the long-suffering wife about to be undone by her husband’s poor business decision, and the one who takes the lead in hatching the plan that will save them from financial ruin. 

Underpinning this story is the desperation of the North London middle-class elite, and the lengths they will go to maintain their wealth and status. The expensive objects they define themselves by, the liberal values they congratulate themselves for, the affected signalling of cosmopolitan tastes all make up a thin facade that slowly comes undone to reveal the real, human ugliness beneath it: these are people who will do anything and everything to protect their own interests. Ethics in this world are a bourgeois accessory, an important signifer—particularly to the sanctimonious Beth, who works at a women’s shelter—but they can be cast off the moment they become inconvenient. The lifestyle Beth enjoys is paid for by husband Richard, who makes his living by defending rapists and delights in the squirms this elicits from his liberal friends, quipping that he is trying to “get out of rape and back into murder”.

The Trouble With Jessica (2023) © Bright Pictures

The characters each have complicated relationships with the magnetic Jessica, revealed through reflections and flashbacks in awkward sepia: ex, lover, fan, rival. She is the prism through which all their smouldering resentments are projected, along with all the familiar gripes of middle age: sexlessness; one-up-manship; wondering if you have lived your life the right way, knowing that you’ll never know. By the end, our cast of characters are no less in her thrall, inextricably tied both to her and each other through the heinous crime that they have committed. 

But the film suffers from what might be called the Saltburn problem, wherein the director is too close to the life it claims to critique to truly condemn it. It can’t quite accept the ugliness it has presented us with, and ends on an oddly saccharine note. Our villains go unpunished, and reunions and reconciliations abound as a tearful Sarah reflects on how lucky they are to have the life that they do. The natural order has been restored, and nothing has changed. 

The Verdict 

The Trouble with Jessica is an entertaining enough film, with a strong cast and some stand-out one-liners, but is ultimately more comfortable with emulating its target than skewering it. As far as eating the rich goes, this film barely takes a bite. 

Words by Kat Lenahan

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