Toby MacDonald (director)
22 February 2019 (released)
20 February 2019
This writer has as weakness for British public schools in films. From the genteel Good Morning Mr Chips, through the satire of original St Trinians to the surreal If… it’s ripe for stories and situations that can reflect a very unique part of British life. This however is the first time (possibly) that Edmond Rostand’s romantic classic, Cyrano de Bergerac, is square in the middle of a film that ridicules the institution with some skill.
Amberson (Alex Lawther) is a scholarship student who sticks out like a poor thumb at Calderhouse boarding school. A school wrapped in rituals such as the punishingly violent, completely pointless game (Streamers) and the foot stamping tradition at assembly every time the name of the founder’s name is mentioned.
Amberson is just about keeping his head above water, when during a silly punishment he bumps into Agnes (Pauline Etienne) the daughter of the new French teacher Babinot (Denis Ménochet).
Amberson is smitten but, as these things go, she is with Winchester (Jonah Hauer-King), a senior, the school hunk, and all-round school sport hero. The feeling is mutual but while Agnes has the brain of a planet sending him strange messages by VHS, Winchester’s stimulation is watching re-runs on the Dambusters cheering on the attack with the rest of the school.
Realising he’s out of his depth Winchester enlists Amberson to help him woo Agnes by acting as go-between and advising him on how to reply to the messages. Reluctantly he does so leading to some highly contrived scenes that reference some of the most famous scenes from classic romantic fiction and manages to be quite funny too.
Needless to say, there are mix ups that lead to Amberson’s suspension, and Agnes’s already overwrought father to fly off the handle.
There’s a breeziness about Old Boys as it plays with public school tropes. As well referencing classic French and British literature, it features dream sequences, artistic angst, rank idiocy, unrequited love, and, it could have tripped all over itself.
That it doesn’t is thanks to deft handling by Director Toby MacDonald and a tight script by Luke Ponte and Freddy Syborn. The latter obviously have a beef with public schools and their position in society. There are undercurrents that suggest these schools are stuck in the past and questions about what sort of people they are educating and preparing for a modern world. But there’s a measure of knowing warmth that actually heightens their absurdity whereas outright hostility could have appeared just resentful.
The cast acquit themselves wonderfully with its share of supporting oddballs. And while it’s not really fair to pick one over the other its Lawther, Etienne and Hauer-King who drive it, if pushed its the latter who takes what could have been a very unsympathetic character and broadens him out eliciting a degree of sympathy. There’s no great belly laughs in Old Boys it’s more a continuous pleasant smile, chuckles and overall rather good fun!