School for scan­dal

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Stratton

IN 1954, the tal­ented Bri­tish writer- di­rec­tor team of Frank Laun­der and Sid­ney Gil­liat adapted Ron­ald Searle’s fa­mous car­toon school­girls into a highly suc­cess­ful film. The Belles of St Trinian’s had one of Bri­tain’s best- loved com­edy ac­tors of the time, Alastair Sim, play­ing the dual roles of the school’s head­mistress, Miss Fit­ton, and her dis­rep­utable brother, Clarence. It was so suc­cess­ful that there were four se­quels, the last be­ing pro­duced in 1980, by which time the idea was get­ting very tired.

Eal­ing Stu­dios, a com­pany bear­ing the same name as the pro­ducer of so many Bri­tish come­dies of the 1940s and ’ 50s ( but not the St Trinian’s films) has taken the rather curious step of re­viv­ing this pretty ar­cane fran­chise. Direc­tors Oliver Parker and Barn­aby Thompson and screen­writ­ers Piers Ash­worth and Nick Moor­croft have up­dated it with cheer­ful vul­gar­ity.

The naughty school­girls, who took part in crim­i­nal ac­tiv­i­ties of all kinds, were al­ways just an ex­cuse to dress a clutch of comely star­lets in school uni­forms too small for them, and so it is with the new St Trinian’s.

The chief plea­sure was al­ways the adult char­ac­ters and Ru­pert Everett, at whose in­sis­tence the new film was made, has a great time camp­ing it up as Miss Frit­ton ( the added R to the name is ob­vi­ously in­tended to sound fruitier) and as her in­do­lent brother, Carn­aby. Colin Firth, whose screen cred­its are amus­ingly ref­er­enced through­out, is game as the straight man, the min­is­ter for ed­u­ca­tion who meets his match with the delin­quents of Bri­tain’s worst school.

In the orig­i­nal Belles , the girls stole a valu­able race­horse; in this the tar­get of their lar­ceny is Ver­meer’s paint­ing Girl with a Pearl Ear­ring. (‘‘ You can see why Colin Firth wanted to shag her,’’ says one of the girls on sight­ing the

St Trinian’s ( M)

Na­tional re­lease

The Spi­der­wick Chron­i­cles ( PG)

Na­tional re­lease

mas­ter­piece in Lon­don’s Na­tional Gallery.) Add to the mix Miss Frit­ton’s ex­ceed­ingly amorous dog, Mr D’Arcy, who takes an un­nat­u­ral lik­ing to the min­is­ter’s trousered leg, and you have all the in­gre­di­ents for a broad farce that, while cer­tainly not fresh, pro­vides a chuckle or three.

* * * SOME peo­ple seek es­capism, fan­tasy, a world of pure en­ter­tain­ment from the cin­ema; oth­ers pre­fer re­al­ism, grounded char­ac­ters and be­liev­able sto­ries that some­how com­ment on the hu­man con­di­tion. It’s dif­fi­cult, per­haps im­pos­si­ble, to com­bine the two streams, but with The Spi­der­wick Chron­i­cles, a con­den­sa­tion of five short books by Tony DiTer­l­izzi and Holly Black into one co­her­ent screen­play, the di­rec­tor and his adap­tors ap­pear to have at­tempted it.

Di­rec­tor Mark Wa­ters is best known for his work in com­edy and his film Mean Girls was smarter than most teen frol­ics. One of the three adap­tors was John Sayles, him­self a dis­tin­guished di­rec­tor ( the other writ­ers were Karey Kirk­patrick and David Beren­baum), and the re­sult is a bet­ter than usual fan­tasy film.

The tem­plate is, per­haps, those Steven Spiel­berg films in which chil­dren whose par­ents have sep­a­rated come face to face with un­earthly crea­tures ( E. T.: The Ex­tra- Ter­res­trial be­ing the most ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple).

Not that The Spi­der­wick Chron­i­cles is in the same class as that much- loved movie; this is a far more mod­est pro­duc­tion. But the el­e­ments are there, as well as a wel­come intelligence and style in the way they’re as­sem­bled.

The beau­ti­fully filmed pro­logue — the hand­some pho­tog­ra­phy is the work of vet­eran Caleb Deschanel — in­tro­duces a pal­pa­bly ner­vous Arthur Spi­der­wick ( David Strathairn) as a mighty thun­der­storm rat­tles the old house in which he lives. Eighty years later, Arthur’s great- great­nephews, twins Jared and Si­mon, both played by the tal­ented Fred­die High­more, and their older sis­ter Mal­lory ( Sarah Bol­ger), move with their re­cently sep­a­rated mother, He­len ( Mary- Louise Parker), into gloomy Spi­der­wick man­sion. It has been empty since Arthur ap­par­ently was taken away by fairies all those years ago and his daugh­ter Lucinda was in­sti­tu­tion­alised.

The chil­dren aren’t happy about be­ing re­moved from their com­fort zones in New York and re­lo­cated in this musty, crum­bling, iso­lated house (‘‘ It has that old peo­ple’s smell,’’ one of them says), but while the com­pli­ant Si­mon is more ac­cept­ing, the tem­per­a­men­tal and in­quis­i­tive Jared quickly dis­cov­ers the su­per­nat­u­ral world lurk­ing inside and out­side the house.

It’s a chal­lenge to in­tro­duce fresh­ness into fan­tasy films such as this; the jaded viewer will have seen most of this be­fore and on a big­ger scale ( think The Lord of the Rings). But the mel­low in­ti­macy of th­ese chron­i­cles, the ex­cep­tional cast — with young High­more steal­ing all the hon­ours, even with the de­layed en­trance of Joan Plowright, no less, as Aunt Lucinda — and the gen­er­ally in­tel­li­gent approach make this one of the bet­ter films of its kind.

Crim­i­nal classes: Gemma Arter­ton as Kelly, cen­tre, with her pals in St Trinian’s

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