Old Boys

***

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Old Boys
"Though it's a difficult line to draw it never felt twee, just winsome, mostly wholesome."

Somewhere in a vaguely indeterminate nineteen-ishties there is a boarding school, one steeped in Kipling and Shakespeare, one with a native game that involves a wall and a stump, one with hazing and gowned teachers and a Universal Carrier and a Fox (or possibly a Daimler?) armoured car for their cadets, but most importantly equipped with a relatively good video editing suite. Video in the literal sense, those plastic rectangles of portent, VHS in all that un-tracked glory.

The biggest surprise in Old Boys, a re-telling of Cyrano De Bergerac, is that it's quite enjoyable. That's mostly down to the charisma of its leads, but there are some nice moments within its script, some even nicer ones within its production design, and despite its obvious debts to antecedents multiple it is to its credit that it charms.

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There's mention of Ibsen, but a different playwright informed my repeated concerns about a looming confrontation at the shooting range. From a critical standpoint I'll give it Marx for highlighting class differences beyond those that exist between Amberson and Winchester.

"Likeable in a weird way", young Amberson is the poetic whisperer, Alex Lawther continuing in a career with a few similar roles, including Christopher Robin and Alan Turing. He's a scholarship student, the precarious nature of his placement in stark contrast to Winchy (Jonah Hauer-King). Hauer-King's got charisma enough to compel as a legacy student, captain of the Streamers team, capable of holding his own with Danny Huston in The Last Photograph. He's similarly magnetic here, even if he is as genial and dim as "a Labrador in trousers". The object of their affection(s) is Pauline Etienne, daughter of the new French master, and based on her performance I'm tracking down a copy of another rom-com she's in, Tokyo Fiancée.

Writers Freddy Syborn and Luke Ponte have various experiences. Syborn's CV includes a number of comedy TV credits and Ponte has worked with director Toby Macdonald on his previous shorts. It's a début feature for two thirds of them, but as Syborn's third it comes after both a rom- and a -com. There are some good lines - the poetry that attracts Agnes is perfectly recited, but apparently completely misunderstood. The school's arcane traditions are played for comic effect, but there's a genuine sense of the valourisation of misery forced upon the officer class. That extends to the school's home game - Streamers - in the mould of Rugby, but with the addition of a wall, a battering ram, a tree-stump, a river, no broomsticks, nor time fracture wickets, plenty of institutional bullying, and seemingly flannel uniforms.

There are some lovely bits of design. Agnes hopes to work in theatre and her sets are striking. She attempts to woo with a video (soundtracked by Plastic Bertrand, naturellement) and the response is entertainingly crafted. There are flick-books and other nice bits of art, and though it's a difficult line to draw it never felt twee, just winsome, mostly wholesome. The 'mostly' because this is adolescent infatuation, and while its open literary debt is to Cyrano and not Romeo & Juliet the course (as with the Streamers field) is not smooth.

Set vaguely in the 1980s, presumably entirely to allow the videotape exchanges but preclude mobile telephony, there are some good period details, including a reference to Starlight Express (1984), but trainspotters like me will clock not just rolling stock but a Posca (1983, probably a PC-17K). Not the classical beverage of vinegar, water, and herbs, but a marker pen - though given how comically equipped the school is (more than one armoured fighting vehicle is more than one more than my school had) I can just about believe that they've got a particular pen brand only a year or so after Japan. Less convincing (for slightly different reasons than Donnie Darko) is how good the soundtrack is, and I'm not sure an isolated public school would have picked up the phrase "going postal" before the Nineties. Etymology is a thing that bugs me, but Old Boys has other legs to stand on.

I was pleasantly surprised, but mostly because my expectations were relatively low. It's entertaining enough, but in the harshness of the modern media landscape it doesn't quite make the cut. Some of that might be bias in selection - I doubt I'm the target audience - and it achieved what you'd hope any comedy does and it made me laugh. It's not so derivative that one can compare it to a calculus lesson, but there's not much new here but for the talent. This is a good accounting, but for me it still didn't quite add up.

Reviewed on: 24 Jun 2018
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Reworking of Cyrano De Bergerac set in an English all-boys boarding school

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