DVD: American Friends | Film reviews, news & interviews
DVD: American Friends
Michael Palin revives family history in this gentle period drama
Michael Palin's adventures in period drama as star and co-writer, with director Tristram Powell, pass a pleasant if forgettable hour and a half. The main thread – repressed Englishman loosens up abroad – links other familiar elements: the closeted life of Oxford academics; mild-mannered English types; and audacious, wealthy Americans. Perhaps the actor can be forgiven: the story is based loosely on his great-grandfather's diaries.
The younger Palin is predictably strong as Francis Ashby, the reserved Oxford don “without moral blemish”. Hiking in the Swiss Alps, Ashby relaxes enough to take part in a dance. “This is a new world for me,” he says, in tones of amazement employed more recently by the actor in his BBC Brazil series. With sky and grass lurid enough to startle even the most nonchalant of mountain goats, thanks to Philip Bonham-Carter's cinematography, Switzerland does, indeed, seem like another world.
For two Americans, the puritanical Caroline Hartley (Connie Booth, the maid in Fawlty Towers) and her moody 18-year old ward Elinor (Trini Alvarado), the Englishman is irresistibly attractive. Is it the accent? Is it the sideburns? Ashby, 46, falls for Elinor. (Exactly.) Alas, it is 1861. Oxford fellows may not marry; they may not even entertain women visitors. Ashby wants to become college president. He must keep his record clean. He must...
Palin and Powell, son of novelist Anthony, ratchet up the tension by having the Americans suddenly appear at college during the run-up to the presidential elections. Ashby's rival, the sleazy Oliver Syme (Alfred Molina), is out to discredit him – and take advantage of his visitors. It is Molina who easily puts in the film's finest performance.
The screenplay of American Friends won a Writers' Guild of Great Britain Award when it came out in 1991. The film has its moments, but it is competent rather than classic.
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