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Frank Sidebottom The Home of the Retrospective


EIFF 2018: Old Boys (2018) directed by Toby MacDonald

N.B. This film is not on wide release in the UK at present. It is showing at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on Thursday 21st and Saturday 23rd June 2018.

A classic play gets updated with a twist

This reworking of Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac is relocated to an upper-class English boarding school. It features Alex Lawther as Amberson, a nerdish, asthmatic schoolboy. While he excels in academic classes and artful pursuits ranging from flick books to videos, he is hopelessly inadequate at the institution’s traditional sport, Streamers (which appears to be a rugby-like game played with a square ball whilst wading in the shallow river which runs through the school grounds). He is perpetually bullied and derided by his fellow team members, including their alpha male leader Winchester (Jonah Hauer-King). Sporting instructor Huggins (Joshua McGuire) isn’t much better as he tends to punish the hapless Amberson with humiliating tasks, such as getting him to walk through the woods to fetch buckets of water from a metal pump.

Alex Lawthor in Old Boys (2018)

One day, while carrying a filled bucket past an old house on the grounds, he trips over, spilling the water everywhere. He is helped back to his feet by an adolescent French girl named Agnes (Pauline Étienne) who has just moved into the house with her father Babinot (Denis Ménochet), who is school’s new French teacher. Once Amberson and Agnes strike up a conversation with each other it quickly becomes obvious that they get on well together.

When Babinot conducts his first French class, he asks the pupils to recite a poem which was taught to them by his predecessor. When it comes to the turn of Winchester’s turn, however, he can’t remember any of it. Amberson, who sits beside him, feeds him the answers by whispering them to him. At that moment, by coincidence, Agnes walks past the outside of the classroom and overhears the beautiful words emerging from Winchester’s mouth. Shortly after the class, Agnes phones Amberson up and tells him that she wants to see him. He goes to meet her and she confesses to him that she has fallen in love with Winchester because she is so surprised that such a handsome guy would display such sensitivity in his words. She hands him a video which she has created with a message for him and asks him to take it to him - something which Amberson dutifully agrees to do.

Unknown to her, however, Winchester is severely lacking in Amberson’s creativity with art and words. Moreover, he gets positively tongue-tied in the presence of women. Amberson agrees to help him out in return for being treated more respectfully by himself and his mates. Their little plan works out pretty well initially. However, all sorts of complications soon ensue - not least because Amberson is besotted with Agnes himself.

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Not the best adaptation… but not all bad either

Cyrano de Bergerac has been successfully adapted for the big screen quite a few times, be it faithfully (as in the 1990 version starring Gérard Depardieu) or transplanted to a different time and place (as in the 1987 version Roxanne, starring Steve Martin). It’s easy to see why: after all, who can resist taking an entertaining journey towards learning an underlying message that possessing wit, charm and talent in abundance trumps physical attraction when it comes to winning over a woman’s heart?

It’s an idea which is difficult to botch completely. However, while Old Boys doesn’t entirely fumble the (square) ball, it doesn’t really threaten to topple those two aforementioned big screen versions from their respective pedestals either. The major issue here is that most of the attempts at humour fail to land. Indeed, the film puts itself on the back foot during its early stages via “comedic” scenes of Amberson being bullied - an idea which isn’t very funny at the best of times. The strange fictionalised sports game which the pupils play is also a baffling choice; one gets the feeling that the screenwriters were big fans of Harry Potter and thought it would be a fantastic idea to come up with their own answer to Quidditch.

While things do (thankfully) improve as the film goes on, the comedy is still patchy and forced. The funniest character here is French teacher Babinot, who writes novels in his spare time - the twist being that his ideas are inspired by 1980s action films and TV such as Miami Vice, resulting in his works being littered with all of the associated cliches. There’s also a fairly amusing scene where Amberson attempts to create a video featuring Winchester playing an astronaut, complete with the backing of a dreadful school brass band reducing the 2001 theme to an atonal din. Unfortunately, these inspired gags are far outnumbered by others which might have sounded great on paper but fall flat on screen, an example being the school’s Shakespeare-obsessed headmaster spouting a ludicrous amount of thesaurus-swallowing pompous dialogue every time he opens his mouth. Incidentally, if you recognise the actor how plays this character from somewhere, you’d be correct. He’s Nicholas Rowe, who is perhaps best known for his starring role in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985).

Despite its issues on the comedic front, however, Old Boys still has a certain charm to it. The acting is decent all round. Alex Lawther manages a solid blend of gawkiness and intelligence as the put-upon protagonist. He also generates a believable on-screen chemistry with co-star Pauline Étienne, whose character has been neatly updated to turn her into a smarter and less passive portrayal of femininity than in previous incarnations.

This is director Toby MacDonald’s feature-length debut and he displays a keen visual eye, particularly during the scenes involving the various flick book and video creations. There’s also a beautifully dreamlike sequence involving Amberson and Agnes being given scenic countryside rides on the backs of motorcycles by a pair of old bikers. While the comedy is often misjudged, he still manages to convey the romantic tension of the original story pretty well.

Runtime: 90 mins

Dir: Toby MacDonald

Script: Luke Ponte, Freddy Syborn

Starring: Alex Lawther, Pauline Étienne, Jonah Hauer-King, Denis Ménochet, Joshua McGuire, Nicholas Rowe

Rating: ☆☆☆

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