School for scandal
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)
The Spiderwick Chronicles ( PG)
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