Friday, October 09, 2009

The School for Scandal: St. Trinian’s

Think of it as the Adams Family in an all-girls’ prep school. Ronald Searle’s macabre cartoons depicting life at St. Trinian’s inspired the hit-or-miss British film franchise that once starred Alastair Sim in drag. The recent reboot of St. Trinian’s has been proclaimed the United Kingdom’s third highest grossing independent film (which must be humiliating for indie film #4). Despite its very British lineage, anglophiles looking for a witty Noel Coward-style comedy will be decidedly disappointed in Oliver Parker and Barnaby Thompson’s St. Trinian’s (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Carmilla Fritton is not what you would call a stern disciplinarian. Her only entrance requirement as St. Trinian’s headmistress is a signed check. After some negotiating, she gets one out of her brother Carnaby, in exchange for taking his boring daughter Annabelle off his hands. Of course, the young Fritton initially struggles to fit in with the various Trinian clicks, including hot upper-class “Posh Totties,” the goth “Emos” and the inevitable “geeks” (no explanation needed).

Very little resembling academic studying happens at St. Trinian’s, which is how the girls like it. They are much too busy distilling home brew and carrying-on over the internet. So when the future of the school is threatened by meddling government bureaucrats and a past due mortgage, the girls spring into action, logically hatching a plan to steal Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Following in the St. Trinian’s tradition, Camilla and Barnaby Fritton are both played by Rupert Everett. Unfortunately, the filmmakers evidently thought the mere sight of Everett in drag would induce such hilarity they would not have to bother writing any real jokes. That proves to be incorrect. While Trinian frequently hints at the risqué, the only naughty bits involve the compromising positions poor Colin Firth finds himself in as Geoffrey Thwaites, the minister of education and former lover of Camilla.

While Firth looks justifiably embarrassed in all of his scenes, the rest of Trinian’s cast fares little better. Alleged comedian Russell Brand falls pancake flat as Flash Harry, the St. Trinian girls’ underworld gofer. An attractive actress, Lena Heady is oddly frumped down to play Miss Dickinson, St. Trinian’s English teacher, but has surprisingly little screen time. Most of the girls themselves are undistinguished stock characters, but at least Gemma Arterton shows real poise and screen presence as head girl Kelly Jones. She seems to have a young Joanna Lumley vibe going on, which is not a bad thing. The only real laughs though come from Stephen Fry, playing an increasingly drunk version of himself hosting an academic quiz show.

Maybe something in Trinian got lost in customs. Despite the presence of some quite talented and appealing actors, like Firth, Heady, Fry, and Arterton, Trinian just isn’t that funny. It opens today at the AMC 19th Street and Empire 25.