Old Boys

 

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A surprising British variation on the French classic Cyrano de Bergerac.

 
Old Boys

Alex Lawther

 

This unusual British comedy, a first feature from director Toby MacDonald, unexpectedly brings two contrasted elements together. First of all, the writers, Luke Ponte and Freddy Syborn, have opted to rework once again the theme of the classic French play of 1897 by Edmond Rostand. As ever that means that a girl thinks she is being wooed by somebody good-looking whose poetic words melt her soul whereas in fact these words are being produced on this suitor's behalf by a less outwardly appealing admirer, one too intimidated by his looks to speak out on his own behalf.  It is the setting chosen for this new treatment that brings in the second element, a send up of the British public school (Lancing College is the location featured).

 

There is some novelty in the mix created. It means that the Cyrano figure becomes the schoolboy Martin Amberson (Alex Lawther) who falls for a French girl, Agnès (Pauline Etienne), who arrives at the college because she accompanies her father (Denis Ménochet) who is taking on a teaching post there. When Agnès reveals to our hero that she has fallen for a youth with unusual qualities, he is hopeful that his feelings are reciprocated. But it turns out that she is enamoured of the college's sporting hero, Winchester (Jonah Hauer-King), who, unlike the clumsy, maladroit Amberson, lives up to the college motto which, translated from the Latin, is 'Act Manfully'. Amberson, of course, wears glasses!

 

The idea of mocking public school attitudes is by no means a bad one and the film is at times on target even if it is extremely vague as to how long ago the tale is meant to be taking place (it fits well enough that the film watched by the students is The Dam Busters dating from 1955 but Starlight Express gets a mention as well). In any case, the film is far too ready to revert to broad comedy at Amberson's expense so that it seems all too pertinent when a video tape devised by Amberson for Winchester to send to Agnès receives this verdict: "The results are patchy indeed unless you like slapstick". Indeed, while the concept might have worked, one concludes that the quality of the screenplay is only that of a first draft, one that needed to be knocked into shape and not least required the ill-judged over-extended climax to be improved.

 

MacDonald's best moments involve the use of montage and the players are no disgrace. The one thing that does shine through is the skill of Alex Lawther in the central role. Well supported by Jonah Hauer-King, he brings immense charm to the film and his achievement here will surely help him when it comes to getting further roles. It's just a shame that the vehicle in which he does so well is itself so lacking in flair and finesse.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Alex Lawther, Jonah Hauer-King, Pauline Etienne, Denis Ménochet, Joshua McGuire, Nicholas Agnew, Nicholas Rowe, Jason Lines, Giles Malcolm, Archie Merry, Eros Vlahos.

 

Dir Toby MacDonald, Pro Luke Morris, Screenplay Luke Ponte and Freddy Syborn, Ph Nanu Segal, Pro Des Max Bellhouse, Ed Sam Sneade and Mark Trend, Music Andrew Hewitt, Costumes Bex Crofton-Atkins.

 

Film4/Momac Films Ltd/BFI Film Fund-Verve Pictures.
95 mins. UK/Sweden. 2018. Rel: 22 February 2019. Cert. 12A.